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Trumpeter swans spotted for the first time during Kensington Christmas bird count

Migration is the most dangerous thing a bird does, and if they can find open water and food in Minnesota, they'll stay.

Two white trumpeter swans soar through a bright blue sky over Douglas County during the annual Christmas Bird Count. While trumpeter numbers were down overall from 2021 to 2022, they have been trending upward over the past decade. They are being spotted in more locations. (Contributed / Tom Ries)
These trumpeter swans were spotted in Douglas County during the annual Christmas Bird Count. Naturalist Ben Eckhoff says trumpeters appear to be growing in numbers over the past decade and have spread out in Douglas County. (Contributed / Tom Ries)

DOUGLAS COUNTY — Trumpeter swans didn't grow in numbers this year in Douglas County — but they did spread out.

Volunteers who counted birds at Christmas time got a good gander at these massive birds, North America's heaviest flying waterfowl, according to says the New York-based Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a unit of Cornell University. They are so heavy that they need at least 100 feet of open water to get airborne, and they sound almost like a galloping horse as they build up the power to take off, the lab notes.

As they do every winter for the Christmas Bird Count, the Douglas County volunteers watched their bird feeders or got into cars and drove to points throughout the Alexandria area and around Kensington. There were fewer volunteers this year in Kensington, says Lake Carlos State Park naturalist Ben Eckhoff, and the weather wasn't as nice as last year, yet they ended up seeing more birds than last year overall.

The trumpeter numbers were down in the Alexandria area, but they saw them in the Kensington area for the first time during the count. And over the past decade, their number have trended upward locally even though they were down from last year to this.

“We’re having more and more of them not only spend the winters here but to breed and nest here in the summers as well,” Eckhoff said. "They tend to come back to the same area year after year."

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Ben Eckhoff Naturalist

Trumpeters have been nesting on Schumacher Slough at the park since 2020, he said.

Part of their winter presence is due to a changing climate. Minnesota doesn't get as cold as it used to, especially at night, meaning that open water is available not just for trumpeters, but for many bird species. Migration is the most dangerous thing a bird does, Eckhoff said, and if they can find open water and food in Minnesota, they'll stay.

This winter, volunteers spotted migratory birds that stayed put, including robins. And they weren't just the injured or sick birds unable to migrate. They were birds that chose to stay, he said. One of his friends closer to the Twin Cities has four bluebirds at his feeder.

In Douglas County, the Long Prairie River often stays open, at least in parts, although it mostly froze the last two winters because of low water levels, Eckhoff said. In case a cold snap causes it to freeze again, trumpeters and robins and other species will go as far as they need to find open water and food. He has seen robins huddling on the south side of houses to stay warm, he said.

The Christmas Bird Count takes place throughout North America. Results are compiled by the National Audubon Society and are used by scientists worldwide.

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A white-breasted nuthatch photographed during the 2022 Christmas Bird Count. In the Kensington area, 53 were spotted, up from 25 last year. In the Alexandria area, volunteers counted 152, up from 119 last year. (Contributed / Tom Ries)
Thomas.Ries

Other results from the 2022 Christmas Bird Count in Douglas County: The most of any bird species spotted in the Alexandria count was the black-capped chickadee, at 580. Ring-necked pheasants have continued to trend upward over the past decade, and so have rock pigeons, red-bellied woodpeckers, blue jays, house finches and tree sparrows.

In the Kensington area, snow buntings (1301) and house sparrows (1016) were the most-sighted birds.

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A horned lark spotted during the 2022 Christmas Bird Count in Douglas County. None were counted during the 2021 event, but this year, volunteers spotted 122 in the Kensington area and 12 in the Alexandria area. (Contributed / Tom Ries)

The Alexandria area saw a decline in more bird species than did the Kensington area. Of 68 bird species that have been seen during the past decade, 33 species were down from a year ago. Some, like the red-tailed hawk and downy woodpecker, were only down by a handful of birds or less, while others, including Canada geese and mallards, were down by hundreds. Eighteen species saw increases of double-digits, including crows, blue jays and cardinals.

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Sightings do fluctuate from year to year, and are driven by weather and other conditions. For instance, one year birds were more visible because they had just endured a snow storm and came out to feed at about the time that volunteers began watching for them, Eckhoff said.

However, Kensington also has more open land than the Alexandria area. Birds can eat soybeans and corn left on farm fields. Among the 52 species recorded in Kensington over the past decade, only six declined from last year — rock pigeons and red-winged blackbirds among them, while 26 species increased, most notably the house sparrow and the snow bunting. The rest stayed the same.

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This Eurasian collared-dove was photographed during the 2022 Christmas Bird Count. Volunteers spotted 18 of them near Kensington, up from 13 last year, but none near Alexandria, down from one in 2021. (Contributed / Ben Eckhoff)

Reporter Karen Tolkkinen grew up in Plymouth, Minnesota, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a journalism degree in 1994. Driven by curiosity and a desire to learn about the United States, Karen Tolkkinen has covered local news from Idaho to New Hampshire to Alabama and landing at the Echo Press in Alexandria in 2017.
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