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City's manmade pond morphs into 'Swan Lake'

Up close, the trumpeter swans' distinctive black beaks stand out. Trumpeters are migratory. They arrive in their breeding grounds in late April after the ice melts and leave for northern wintering grounds in September before freeze. <i>Photo courtesy of Linda Amundsen</i>

"I saw this big white bird, but I was too far away," said River Falls resident Linda Amundsen. "I had to check it out."

That was in February. Amundsen was in the parking lot at Family Fresh Market downtown.

From afar she saw an unfamiliar bird on Lake George.

Curious, she went to the White Pathway on the other side of the lake and followed the pathway to the observation deck.

The "big white bird" was a trumpeter swan. There were three swimming along the Kinnickinnic River and into Lake George -- a breeding pair with a young one.

Amundsen, who's walked the White Pathway for years, often with her dogs, said: "I've never seen swans there before...I've never been that close to a swan."

She added: "With that big white body and dark beak, they're beautiful, very impressive. They are so much larger than a Canada goose."

Since February Amundsen has monitored the trumpeter swans of Lake George. She counts eight.

"I'll keep coming back to see what happens with them," she said. "It'll be interesting to see if they stay on the lake and grow in numbers."

Tony Steiner, city planner/forester said he, too, has noticed the trumpeters' presence in the last few weeks.

"I have seen them in the past, but it was not a common occurrence," he said.

Should the swans stay the year on Lake George, Steiner didn't believe presence would be an issue.

"As far as a problem on the (White) Pathway, they would probably have no more impact than the geese that are already there," he said.

Five springs ago, Lake George drew another bird species rarely seen in these parts -- loons.

The eerie-sounding birds were heard yodeling and seen swimming and diving under the Lake George waters in March and April 2008.

Farther back in local history -- and arguably stranger than the loon's presence -- was an April 1987 incident that made the Journal's front page: "Mother kills trumpeter swan after it attacks four-year-old daughter."

The "nightmare" encounter occurred below Glen Park on the riverbank near the upper dam and across from the city's power plant.

According to the Journal's story, the swan attack was on a Sunday. Two adult sisters were picnicking with their five children.

The group came quietly to a bench to watch the trumpeter swim by. When humans and bird were about 10 feet apart, one of the mother's said the swan "looked like it went crazy."

The swan chased after a four-year named Angie and knocked her to the ground by the water.

"It was jumping up and down on her stomach and had its wings wrapped around her, poking its beak at her at the same time," the mother said. "She was completely covered by it. I didn't know if she was dead."

The other adult sister then grabbed the swan by the neck and flung it aside. The children grabbed Angie and they all fled.

Even with the kids gone, the swan kept attacking the two women, "snapping its beak at (my sister's) face."

One woman then seized the swan by the neck while the other hit it repeatedly with a shoe. The swan collapsed.

A quarter of a century later, DNR wildlife biologist Missy Sparrow in Baldwin says the state's trumpeter swan recovery program -- begun in 1987 -- has been a "huge success."

"The goal of the WDNR recovery program was to achieve a population of least 20 breeding and migratory pairs by the year 2000," she said. "In 2012 we had 216 nesting pairs in the state, with 332 cygnets (young swans) fledged."

Sparrow said there's long been a swan population that winters in the Hudson area. Some reports put this number at 600.

"In February, the adults leave the wintering grounds to head back to their nesting grounds," Sparrow said. "The cygnets follow them back to the nesting grounds, but are then kicked out. Some of those cygnets do return to Hudson.

"You may be seeing some cygnets in River Falls that have recently been displaced or a pair that is looking for a nesting site. However, I would not suspect that they would nest in River Falls."

Sparrow said that like any wild animal, trumpeters get defensive around their nests. She's never heard of a swan attacking people.

"That would be very strange," she said. "Trumpeters are not normally aggressive."

For the complete story, please see the March 28 print edition of the River Falls Journal.