The Trumpeter Swan is the largest North American waterfowl and one of few native swan species. They are monochrome, with a black, slightly rounded beak, a completely white head and body, and black legs. With the largest male ever recorded presenting a breathtaking wingspan of 10 feet and 2 inches and weighing in at a hefty 17.2kg (38 pounds), it is obvious why Trumpeter Swans are a sight to behold on their own let alone when part of a ‘lamentation’ or ‘bevy’ (collective nouns for a group of swans; the term ‘wedge’ is used for a group of swans in flight).
The Sandhills possess habitats perfect for Trumpeter Swans, especially in Cherry, Sheridan, and Garden counties. Where there is an abundance of open water, fresh vegetation to feed on, extensive cover, and little human disruption, other than by visitors hoping to appreciate this glorious bird.
In “Birds of Nebraska – their distribution and temporal occurrence” (2001), Sharpe, Silcock, and Jorgensen provide a potted history of Nebraska’s Trumpeter Swans covering the last 120 years. Pre-1900 a small population of Trumpeter Swans is thought to have made the lakes of the Sandhills their primary breeding location, but through unchecked hunting—primarily for the feathers, which supposedly made the best quills—they were all but wiped out from this particular region.
Thanks to a welcome increase in the numbers of Trumpeter Swans in Montana’s Red Rocks National Wildlife Refuge, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) began a reintroduction program. They transferred a small bevy of Trumpeter Swans from this region (between 1960 and 1963) to LaCreek NWR, South Dakota, where the most southerly point lies just 16km from the Nebraska state boundary. This same line of birds then began to migrate on to the Lakes of Sandhills, with records showing the first successful nesting, from this relocated population, took place around 1968 at Hoover Lake, Sheridan County.
From this point onward, the transplanted population has gone from strength to strength, with Trumpeter Swans breeding in most northerly counties of Nebraska, including McPherson, Holt, Arthur, and those previously mentioned. In recent years, the best place to see Trumpeter Swans, during summer, is Valentine NWR, where there are a large number of lakes to investigate, such as Pelican, Mule, and West Twin Lake.
During winter, choosing the best place to visit for Trumpeter Swan spotting is a much harder job, as the frozen lakes force the Nebraskan breeding population and any migrating groups to go wherever they can gain access to food. However, since the 1980s a number of sites have provided regular sightings, such as the North Platte River, just South of Lake Ogallala and Blue Creek in Garden County.
Whichever site you base your visit around, make sure to take a camera, so you can be the envy of your friends when they have proof that you saw once extinct Nebraskan natives alive and well.