During the last month of 2015 the U. S. northeast experienced the warmest December temperatures since the U. S. Weather Bureau began recording weather statistics more than a century ago. A few days in December the daily high temperatures reached sixty degree readings. Winter 2015-16 really arrived in early January 2016 with an inch of snow and a morning temperature of 12 º. New England weather is never monotonously dull with periodic northeaster storms in spring and summer, blizzards in winter, and tropical hurricanes in late summer and fall.
For Ralph and I spring 2016 arrived when Ma and Pa Mute Swan returned to the Duck Pond on March 3rd for the fifth spring. While the pond area is small it must meet all their requirements for this mute swan couple has returned each spring to raise their cygnets for the past four years. You may wonder how we know it is the same pair of swans that comes each spring. The answer: they always swim right over to us. The unanswered question; it is the bread we have or do they remember us as the same two people who fed them last year or it is the fact they were fed by other swan-loving people in their winter home that makes them interact so readily with humans?
3/5/16 We visited the swans this afternoon and confirmed the swans that arrived on March 3rd are truly Ma and Pa. Ralph flashed the car lights as we drove up to feed them. The swans remembered that signal from previous years and immediately swam to us. This signal of flashing the car lights to announce our arrival first began when we visited Sam, a mute swan that could not fly. Because Sam could not fly, he lived year round in our harbor. We visited him daily, protected him from a hurricane and took him to the vet for medical care. Our book ‘Good Morning Sam’ is a narrative memoir about the development of the swan-to-human relationship with this unique mute swan.
Last year we had two families of swans to observe; the pair of swans returned to the Duck Pond for their 2015 nursery. However it was another unsuccessful year for cygnets. Seven fluffy cygnets were born in late May but soon after that one cygnet less would come to visit us. The last cygnet to visit us came with an injury, not one oozing blood but one with feathers gone on a bloated chest. Mother swan was very protective of that cygnet and waited patiently for the cygnet to finish eating before swimming to the large boulder in the middle of the pond. The cygnet trailed behind its mother by quite a distance so she would call to the cygnet, encouraging it to quickly follow her. Abutted to the boulder was a flat large stone which offered a safe place to roost. Sadly, when we returned the next day, no little cygnet was seen. The adult swans did spend the summer on the pond and left in late October.
A second pair of mute swans chose the retaining pond at Silvershell Beach as their nursery. Those swans were the talk of the village, the most photographed swans in Marion and well fed by admirers. Beach goers, health walkers and nature lovers all planned daily visits to Silvershell Beach. By mid-April the daily news item running through the village was that the Silvershell pen (the female swan) was sitting on the nest. By late spring the big news items circulating was ‘there are five cygnets’; soon the traffic became congested at the beach as people came to view the swan family. Sadly, there were only three cygnets that lived to be adolescent swans. By late summer, there were days when no swans were swimming in the Silvershell pond. My thoughts are that by that time the growing cygnets needed to be taught how to fly and the pond did not have a large enough water area for a swan to take flight so the swan family took a short walk over the land separating the pond from the cove inlet. One previous year Ralph and I watched the Duck Pond swans teach their one surviving cygnet to fly. For a cygnet, learning how to fly is a visual lesson; by just watching its parents fly short flights over the pond’s water surface they learn how to fly. Flight for a swan begins with powerful wing flapping to raise their body up out of the water as the swan skims over the pond. Before long altitude is gained and their webbed feet appear to be ‘running’ over the pond surface as their wing tips loudly smack the water surface as more altitude is gained. Before long the swan is airborne with its feet tucked up snugly to the underside of its body and the swan has attained flight. What a beautiful sight to witness.
By late October the Silvershell Beach swans had also flown away on their winter sojourn to wherever that might be. Mute swans are not migratory birds in New England; they only fly from inland ponds and lakes in late fall to the open coastal waters for the winter months. It will be the last time we see this year’s adolescence swans for they will not return to their birth pond site; only the adult parents will return. The 2015 cygnets will become members of a flock of adolescence mute swans for a few years before finding ‘that one mate’ to share life with as adults and have cygnets of their own.
For us it is a sad fall day when we visit the Duck Pond and find no graceful swans there to greet us. Whenever we see swans swimming on open water we wonder if they are Ma and Pa Swan. Of course we cannot confirm nor deny if it is. Our thoughts are that Ma and Pa’s winter destination is probably somewhere along open coastal waters of southern New England, Connecticut and New York. We are already counting the days until the arrival of the next spring.