The Swan Vigil

I have spent the last two-and-a-half months at a nearby lake, observing a pair of nesting swans. I have learned a lot about mute swans from reading and from observation. In this blog piece, I will share a few observations and some photographs.

March 18, 2023, was a blustery day in my hometown, a great day to do photography. So I grabbed my camera and went for a walk on a boardwalk that runs through a marshy area of nearby Reeds Lake. On my walk, I came upon a swan nest about 40 feet from the boardwalk. It wasn’t immediately noticeable since the swan and her nest were covered with snow.

I stood and watched for a while as the cob approached the nest and the two birds ultimately changed positions.

The pen left the marsh and headed out to open water to eat. The cob stood preening himself before eventually sitting on the nest.

The Eggs

On March 24, I got my first glimpse of eggs on the nest. As she would do throughout the gestation period of the eggs, the pen stood up briefly from time to time and rotated the eggs using her bill.

Mute swans lay an egg every day or two until their clutch is complete. On average, a clutch contains about six eggs. By April 5, the pen had laid nine eggs. The eggs were clearly visible on April 5, when the swans were busy raising the level of the nest. The night before, we had received close to 2 inches of rain and the lake water rose to within inches of the top of the nest. The cob and pen worked feverishly to add to the nest.

The nine eggs were clearly visible as the pen climbed back onto the nest.

A Note About Mute Swans

The Reeds Lake swans are mute swans, a species that was introduced to the northeast United States to decorate ornamental ponds and lakes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Escaped swans began to spread throughout the northeast. According to an account in the Petoskey News, mute swans were introduced into Michigan in 1918 near Charlevoix. The News reported that the swans were imported to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, from England by George Bruce Douglas. When the swans proved too aggressive to be among his children, Douglas moved them to Michigan, where the family spent its summers.

There were an estimated 15,000 swans in Michigan in 2010. With no natural predators, the population of mute swans in Michigan continues to grow by about 10 percent each year. The State of Michigan classifies mute swans as “non-native invasive species.”

Mute swans have a significant negative impact on the environment. According to the Michigan Audubon Society, “[t]he species’ capacity for consuming upwards of 8 pounds of aquatic vegetation per day while also dislodging an equal or greater amount, causes substantial damage to wetland habitats, reduces native floral diversity, and can decimate vegetation beyond the point where it can regenerate.” The Wilderness Society says its primary concern in Michigan is the impact mute swans have on threatened and endangered native species, including trumpeter swans and common loons.

Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources described mute swans as “[o]ne of the world’s most aggressive waterfowl species, especially while nesting and raising their young.” Mute swans will drive out other native waterfowl. The State’s official policy, adopted in 2012, is to reduce the spring population of mute swans in Michigan to less than 2,000 by the year 2030. The State has established procedures for the removal and destruction of nests and eggs.

Protecting the Nesting Area

As I continued to check in on the swans, I saw several examples of the aggressive behavior of the cob. Not far from the swan nest, a pair of geese established their nest with six eggs.

The cob was not happy with this at all. I watched for an hour one day as the cob threatened the goose and the gander. The cob parked itself within a few feet of the goose nest and alternated between resting its head under its wing and snapping at the goose and gander. The goose and gander stood their ground against the much larger swan.

I visited the goose nest the evening of April 28. All was well. When I returned early the next morning, the goose eggs and geese were gone without a trace, not even a broken shell. It is a mystery how the nest could disappear overnight. Did the cob finally strike? Cobs have been known to stomp on the eggs of other birds. But how can there be no trace?

I saw several other examples of the cob protecting its territory. Early one morning when I arrived, the pen was asleep on the nest, while the cob slept next to the nest in the water. Suddenly, the cob awoke and quickly left the nest, assuming an aggressive stance. I caught a photo of the swan taking flight to chase two swans that had landed halfway across the lake. I was amazed that the cob was alert enough in his slumber to sense that swans were present hundreds of yards away.

I watched on other occasions when the cob gave chase to geese in the marsh.

Reeds Lake

Reeds Lake is a 283 acre lake in East Grand Rapids, Michigan. From its furthest point in the east to its furthest point in the west, the lake stretches 1.22 miles. While most of the property along the shore has been given over to stately homes, the western shore includes the town’s middle school, city and public safety offices, library, a marina, and John Collins Park (which includes the East Grand Rapids High School crew team’s boat house), and a public boat launch.

The northwesternmost part of the lake is a marshland area adjacent to Waterfront Park and Hodenpyl Woods. A boardwalk extends through the marsh along a channel that leads to nearby Fisk Lake. The swan nest is just 40 feet from the boardwalk, in plain sight.

Image from Google Earth 5/23/2023.

In the spring, the marshland attracts a wide range of returning and migrating species and it seems a similar number of birdwatchers. Male red-winged blackbirds are among the first to arrive. The males battle to establish to territory in anticipation of the females’ arrival a month later.

A red-winged blackbird staking its claim to territory on a snowy day in March.

A female red-winged blackbird in her nest.

For a couple of weeks, American coots by the hundreds were on the lake as they passed through.

The coots are skittish birds and very difficult to get near, but they are great at providing early warning of approaching bald eagles. When an eagle comes near, the coots all quickly fly for cover in the reeds.

The marshland is home, or a temporary stop, for a wide variety of wildlife. I have posted a gallery of some of the photos of the inhabitants of the lake that I took on my visits.

Will they Ever Hatch?

As March turned into April and April turned into May, people observing the nest began to wonder whether the eggs would ever hatch. Mute swan eggs generally hatch 36 to 42 days after the pen lays her last egg. Miraculously, all of the eggs hatch on the same day. From my observations, I calculated that the pen laid her last egg around April 3 or 4. I have the photo of 9 eggs, which I took on April 5, and never saw more than that. Forty-two days passed on May 16. As I write this today, sixty days have passed since April 5. Nonetheless, the swans have not given up hope and continue to tend to the eggs.

It has been a long ordeal for the pen, who spends most of her time on the nest. I have read that the pen loses as much as 40% of her body weight while she sits on the nest. The pen gets up regularly to rotate the eggs and change her position on the nest.

The cob does change places with her from time to time. This “changing of the guard” tends to follow a certain routine. First, the pen stands up and tries to cover the eggs with loose down that is in the nest.

Then, the pen leaves the nest after the cob approaches. The first time I witnessed the change, the cob never climbed onto the nest. Instead, he stayed near the side of the nest and kept a watchful eye on the eggs.

When the cob does climb on the nest, he tends to stand and preen himself for about a half hour before finally settling down on the nest. When the swans get on the nest they often do so with outstretched wings.

As time has passed, the scene has changed dramatically from the snow-covered scene in March to a lush marshland in May and June. The swans have continued out of habit to add to the nest. Here the cobs sits on the nest on May 22 waiting for the pen’s return.

As May turned into June, against hope people, including myself, reached the conclusion that we would see no cygnets. Nonetheless, I have continued to visit the nest every day and marvel that the pen and cob continue their vigil. This morning, when I saw the pen peering back at me from the nest, I thought back to that day in March when I first saw the snow-covered pen.

It has been an interesting project for me to visit the nest each day. I have made many new acquaintances and renewed some old ones as we stood on the boardwalk wondering when the eggs would hatch. I have enjoyed getting a better attuned to nature and appreciating the wonder of renewal that spring brings. While it would seem to be a miracle if the eggs were to hatch now, I will continue to stop by the lake once or twice a day until the pen and the cob finally give up their vigil.