OLYMPIA – For the second straight year, the number of trumpeter swans that died from lead poisoning decreased in northern Puget Sound and southwestern British Columbia, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
During this past winter, preliminary information indicates that about 95 trumpeter swans died from ingesting lead in areas where they feed. That’s five fewer swans than last winter, 120 fewer birds than the winter of 2005-06, and about half of the previous five-year average.
The two-year decline coincides with hazing efforts at Judson Lake, a body of water on the U.S.-Canadian border in Whatcom County frequented by trumpeter swans during the winter months, said Don Kraege, WDFW waterfowl section manager. For the past two winters, University of Washington crews have worked to scare trumpeter swans off the lake, where years of waterfowl hunting has left spent lead shot in the shallows.
Lead shot has been banned for waterfowl hunting in Washington and British Columbia for more than 15 years, but biologists believe swans are scooping up old lead shot while feeding at Judson Lake and other shallow waters in the region.
“We’re confident that Judson Lake is a source of toxic lead,” Kraege said. “But trumpeter swans are still dying of lead poisoning, so it’s clear that we need to keep looking for other sources in the region.”
WDFW, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Canadian Wildlife Service, the University of Washington, the Trumpeter Swan Society, the Washington Waterfowl Association and many other non-governmental organizations are working to pinpoint areas that could be a source of toxic lead.
One such location could be along Clearbrook Road, which is just a few miles south of Judson Lake. Earlier this year, University of Washington crews took 700 soil samples from multiple locations to determine if the area contains toxic lead. Those samples are currently being tested, Kraege said.
Meanwhile, the group is discussing further efforts to keep trumpeter swans from ingesting lead at Judson Lake. The group is scheduled to meet this summer to consider whether to continue hazing operations and discuss possible habitat modifications, such as removing or covering the lead.
“The department appreciates the work of each agency and organization involved in this effort, especially the work of volunteers from the Trumpeter Swan Society and the Washington Waterfowl Association,” Kraege said. “In addition to volunteering their time, members of the Whatcom chapter of the waterfowl association contributed $13,000 to the project this year.”
Trumpeter swans are off-limits to hunting in both the U.S. and Canada. With their bright white plumage and large size, the swans are one of the most visible bird species and attract big crowds to their traditional wintering grounds in the region.
The trumpeter swan population that annually visits the region has steadily grown in the last few decades, said Kraege. About 8,000 swans were counted in the area this year, a significant increase from the early 1970s when only about 100 birds were documented.
The swans usually arrive in late October and stay in northwestern Washington and southwestern British Columbia through the winter before beginning their northward migration in April. They nest in central Alaska and points north.