Some adventures take us in directions we would never have expected, and might not have taken, had we seen them coming. But those are often the adventures that leave us with the best stories to tell! It was early last summer when I had this particular adventure. I was out in my kayak hoping to encounter some wildlife. It was the time of year for many of them when love was in the air and one was more likely to see two rather than one creature. I paddled to the main channel, but decided that it was a little too windy. Apparently most of the wildlife agreed. There wasn’t much to see out there, other than whitecaps. My adventuresome spirits began to wane a bit. However, not quite ready to give up, I decided to head back toward the shore and explore one of the many protected back bay areas near our camp.
Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw two large white UFOs, flying along the shoreline. I listened carefully and, sure enough, I heard that familiar whistling sound. I pulled out my camera and wildly aimed it in the direction of these moving sounds. I zoomed in and sure enough, it was a pair of swans. I’ve occasionally seen a swan or two fly by our camp, but always hurriedly on their way to somewhere else. Today was different. I saw them starting to slow and begin to descend, as if they were looking for a place to land. Maybe I was going to have that adventure I was seeking after all. The swans headed into a small bay and splashed down. I was thrilled. I started to paddle in that direction but didn’t want to scare them away, so instead of entering the bay directly, I paddled around an island to another entrance.
My tactic seemed to have worked. I drifted into the bay and spotted the couple in the distance, swimming along the cattail-lined shore. They seemed not to have noticed me. I started taking pictures as I allowed the boat to drift closer to them. The wind was pushing me directly toward them. I had never been that close to swans in the wild before. I suddenly realized that one of the swans had spotted me. Or, if he had seen me earlier, now he decided to take notice. Rather than moving away, he lifted his head up and began to move toward me. I was ecstatic and continued to take pictures until I heard him start to make a strange grunting sound as he cruised closer.
I became a little less ecstatic and decided maybe it was time to back up a bit. The swan continued to head in my direction making that grunting noise. I don’t think I’ve ever fully appreciated how large a swan is. Or maybe they just look a whole lot larger when they are grunting and heading toward a kayaker. At any rate, I decided that I had all the pictures I needed, turned the boat around, and made a hasty retreat. I was escorted all the way to the edge of the bay before the swan seemed to lose interest and headed back to his mate. It was only then that it occurred to me that quite possibly, there was a nest back there in the bay and that I had been an uninvited visiter.
From the comfort (and safety) of home, I decided to see what I could learn about our new neighbors. The mute swan is not native to the US. It was originally from Eurosiberia, but has become an “introduced species” in North America and, over the past 50 years, right here in the Thousand Islands. The name 'mute' comes from it being less vocal than other swan species. It is a large bird measuring from 49 inches (125 cm) to 67 inches (170 cm) in length, a wingspan of up to 8 feet (2.4 m), and can weigh up to 26 pounds (11 kg). It is snowy white in plumage, with an orange beak bordered with black. It is recognizable by its pronounced knob at the top of the beak, which is larger in males (and especially large in males stalking kayakers!).
Mute swans nest on large mounds that they build with vegetation in shallow water at the edge of a lake. They mate for life and reuse the same nest each year where they share the care of the nest, and once the cygnets (baby swans) are fledged, it is common to see the whole family foraging for food.
I read that the mute swan makes a variety of sounds, which one article described as "grunting, hoarse whistling, and snorting noises." My thought exactly! Mute swans also hiss at intruders trying to enter their territory. I was not surprised to read that mute swans can be very aggressive in defense of their nests and are highly protective of their mate and offspring. Most defensive attacks from a mute swan begin with a loud hiss and, if this is not sufficient, is followed by a physical attack beating their enemy with their powerful wings and biting with their large bill. I also read that mute swans regularly attack people who enter their territory. It sounds like I got off easy!
I’m glad I decided not to wait around for what would have been coming next in my first up close and personal swan encounter. However, I can’t really blame them for just wanting to protect their nest (and eventually their little ones a.k.a cygnets). Hmmm. I’d sure love a picture of them! But speaking of pictures, I have to say that the large, grunting, swan headed my way illustrated a familiar verse to me in a very dramatic way: “He who lives in the safe place of the Most High will be in the shadow of the All-powerful . . . He will cover you with His wings. And under His wings you will be safe. He is faithful like a safe-covering and a strong wall” (Psalm 91:1-2). We have a strong heavenly father who has promised that he will watch over us, protect us, and will be with us no matter what we might be facing. Knowing that, the Psalmist declared, “Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 63:7). I guess you could call that his swan song.
As for me, I probably shouldn't admit this, but I look forward to spring and heading back to see if I can spot the swan couple again. Hopefully, I've learned enough to keep a safe distance away, so I don't end up singing my own swan song!
By Patty Mondore
Patty Mondore and her husband, Bob, are summer residents of the Thousand Islands. Patty's most recent books include "River-Lations Revisited: More Inspirational Stories and Photos from the Thousand Islands", "River Reflections: A 90-Day Devotional for People Who Love the Water" and its two sequels, "Nature Reflections" and "A Bird Lover's Reflections." She and Bob co-authored "Singer Castle" and "Singer Castle Revisited", published by Arcadia Publishing, and co-produced "Dark Island's Castle of Mysteries" documentary DVD, in addition to a Thousand Islands Music DVD Trilogy. Patty is a contributing writer for the Thousand Islands Sun. Her column, "River-Lations", appears in the Vacationer throughout the summer months. The Mondores are online at www.gold-mountain.com. (Be sure to also visit Bob's singercastle.blogspot.com.) See Patty's most recent TI Life Articles here and several others here and here!
Editor’s Note: Lots of Swan sightings these days. During September and October 2021, a large group of about two dozen mute swans were living in the Admiralty Islands, mostly around McDonald Island and the Spectacles Islands, but also ranging up to the east end of Howe Island. The group included adults and juveniles, and seemed to be simply foraging and feeding, presumably preparing for winter. It’s not clear where they over-winter as even in January we found photographs on Facebook proving they may be real honest-to-goodness snowbirds and not those looking for Florida beaches.
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