Open water, improved habitat for plants attracts trumpeter swans

Three trumpeter swans glide through the water at sunset at Levi Carter Park. The birds were attracted to the open water.

Randy Garlipp turned his head for a second look. He couldn't believe his eyes. Three trumpeter swans floated in a pool of open water on the mostly ice-covered Carter Lake.

Many types of birds frequent Levi Carter Park. Bald eagles are regular visitors. One mallard has even decided to spend much of its day in Garlipp's yard. But the trumpeter swans, nearly decimated by hunters in the late 19th century, were a surprise. Along with hundreds of ducks and geese, including coots, northern shovelers, mergansers, mallards and Canada geese, the swans were attracted to one of the few open spots in the ice in the Omaha area.

The visit also may be a sign that a restoration project at the park, which included a dredging of the lake, has resulted in a better habitat for water plants. The trumpeter's main food source is underwater vegetation.

“The whole park is getting a facelift,” said Garlipp, the caretaker for the 525-acre park.

Currently closed to the public, the park will receive access improvements. Also, the old pavilion that has been closed for years has recently received a new roof.

“We hope to refurbish the building for use by the community,” Garlipp said.

Mark Vrtiska knew he would see swans through his window. Vrtiska, waterfowl program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, was flying in a small aircraft over the Sand Hills counting the birds last week.

For the past two years, the count of the flock in the Sand Hills, Nebraska's largest concentration of trumpeter swans, has been up slightly. And Vrtiska expects the same after all the birds are counted this year.

“Trumpeters are doing very well now,” Vrtiska said.

The 2012 count found 753 swans (656 adults and 97 juveniles) in the Sand Hills. The state's biggest population is located near Merritt Reservoir in Cherry County.

Most trumpeter swans in Nebraska originated from the reintroduction of a few dozen birds in the early 1960s at the Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge, just north of the Nebraska border near Bennett, S.D.

Trumpeters, which mate for life and can live 20 to 30 years, have made a slow but steady comeback thanks in part to reintroduction projects in several states.

A national trumpeter swan count in the early 1930s showed that only 69 trumpeters existed in the continental United States, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

In 1998, Iowa celebrated the first cygnets hatched by a nesting pair in the state in more than 115 years. Vrtiska suspects that the trumpeters visiting the Omaha area may have been birds from the Iowa reintroduction project.

“When I see trumpeter swans, it's an indicator of good habitat quality,” Vrtiska said. “It's all about the habitat.”

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