Sometimes my eyes play tricks on me. The other day I thought I saw a mute swan on the pond. I was not pleased. I most certainly do not want swans on ”my” pond. While lovely to look at, and evocative of ballet and fairy stories, they are a menace. Mute swans are an “introduced” species, that is to say brought here by artifical means. Highly aggressive, they quickly clear a body of water of any other fowl. The balance of an ecosystem can be affected in very little time. While the population explodes, they eat up vegetation on the bottom of the pond, sometimes driving valuable plants to extinction.
Looking again, I saw long legs. That “swan” had a pair of gams that Anne Miller would be proud of! It was a Great Egret. During the spring and summer egrets of several kinds are not uncommon on our shoreline. But in Farmington, fifty miles or more from Long Island Sound, an egret is something of an event. This one may be a migrating bird perhaps using the nearby Farmington River to head south.
I have never before seen an egret at Hill-Stead. We sometimes get sandpipers feeding on our little mudflat, but it’s not a steady thing. That’s about it for shorebirds. In migration we get some nice ducks. But egrets, no.
Egrets and swans have good stories. The egret is the symbol of the National Audubon Society. At the end of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century, egrets were hunted nearly to extinction due to the fashion of using their plumes in the hat trade. As Audubon Societies sprung up and with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, egrets rebounded. Today they are not of any specific conservation concern. Using an impressive beak they are a graceful predator of small fish, frogs and other aquatic fauna. Egrets are sometimes hard to spot. Standing motionless for long periods they wait for the right moment and in the right light cannot be seen until they strike.
Swans are native to Northern Europe and Central Asia. A big bird, in historic days it was considered by royalty to be tasty eating. Indeed, the custom of “swan upping” in England is an annual census of the swans on the Thames River. The tradition comes from the monarchy’s protection of its game birds. To foil poachers, all swans were marked as the property of the Crown, so cygnets (baby swans) were marked as such each spring. Today the census is used more for educational than gustatory purposes.
Around the time the Great Egret was being saved from extinction, swans were being imported to America for their stylish looks. Essentially an accessory or fashion statement, the bird’s regal bearing was just right for the huge estates of Long Island and the Hudson Valley. Today, a pair of swans runs about $500. I heard somewhere that a flock of swans currently numbered at about 14,000 started with five imported birds on some Long Island Estate. Caveat emptor.
See you on the trails,