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Once nearly extinct, trumpeter swans are making their graceful return to Almonte

The swans congregate during the winter and go their separate ways in the spring.  (Robyn Miller/CBC - image credit)
The swans congregate during the winter and go their separate ways in the spring. (Robyn Miller/CBC - image credit)

A small town west of Ottawa could be turning into a wintering hot spot for the stately trumpeter swan.

The once nearly extinct bird has rebounded in numbers across Ontario thanks to the hard work of dedicated volunteers.

Now, residents of Almonte, Ont., are enjoying the musical stylings of a flock that has taken a liking to the calm, shallow waters of the Mississippi River.

Catherine Sykes has lived along the river for over 30 years and says she can't get enough.

"I love the sound!" she beamed, describing the arrival of a large group of the noisy birds the previous day. "I was having a nap and all I could hear was the racket.

"They're just fantastic!"

Larry Maynard said he has seen trumpeter swans near his home in the past, but only one or two at a time.
Larry Maynard said he has seen trumpeter swans near his home in the past, but only one or two at a time.

Larry Maynard said he's seen trumpeter swans near his home in the past, but never in these numbers. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

Larry Maynard lives next door and has also been enjoying the company of at least 13 swans, including four cygnets.

"I think they're gorgeous-looking animals," Maynard said. "We love the sound, we love the company and you hear it at night as well, it's very pleasant to hear."

Conservation success story

Residents say they've seen swans in the area before, but never this many. Experts believe it's likely the result of a growing population of the waterfowl.

"We're starting to see them in places, in numbers we haven't seen them before, and [they're] off exploring and creating newer migration routes and nesting in new places," said Liz Benneian, a co-founder of the Trumpeter Swan Coalition.

Benneian suspects the river in Almonte has enough open water and aquatic vegetation to keep the swans happy before they go their separate ways in the spring to nest in Ontario's wetlands.

A large portion of Ontario's trumpeter swans currently winter in LaSalle Park Harbour in Burlington, which Benneian said is the very first place trumpeter swans migrated to after they were reintroduced in the province.

She said trumpeters, which are the largest swan in the world, are native only to North America and their resurgence is a true conservation success story.

A group of trumpeter swans enjoy the shallow and calm water of the Mississippi River in Almonte.
A group of trumpeter swans enjoy the shallow and calm water of the Mississippi River in Almonte.

Trumpeter swans enjoy the calm, shallow water of the Mississippi River in Almonte, Ont. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

The birds were hunted nearly to extinction in 1886, sought out for their meat, feathers and the leather on their feet. In the 1980s retired biologist Harry Lumsden began the work of reviving the population.

He received a shipment of trumpeter swan eggs from a small population of birds in Alaska, and the Trumpeter Swan Restoration Group was started.

Volunteers in northern Ontario helped raise the swans in captivity before starting to release them.

It's now estimated there are about 2,000 trumpeters thriving across Ontario, according to Susan Best, chair of Trumpeter Swan Conservation Ontario, which collects data and tags the birds for observation.

Sightings in Ottawa area grow

"If you think a species is gone, think about how exciting it is to be able to reestablish that species in its native habitat," Best said.

In 2022 the group logged 168 sightings of trumpeter swans in the Ottawa area, and that number more than doubled last year to 341 sightings

"In the winter they congregate. They're together in big numbers, and those numbers will increase as the birds get the memo that that's a good place to go with good feeding," she added.

The distinct call of the trumpeter swan can be heard from the banks of the Mississippi River in Almonte.
The distinct call of the trumpeter swan can be heard from the banks of the Mississippi River in Almonte.

The distinct call of the trumpeter swan can be heard from the banks of the Mississippi River in Almonte, Ont. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

Candice Smith-Garton came to Almonte recently to visit her mom and wanted to show the swans to her young children.

Unfortunately, the birds were too far away when they arrived, but she's hoping they stick around so she can try again.

"Being able to come to my home town and see something that [was] almost gone is amazing," she said.