'Swan marsh' drew big audiences in Alaska

Winter arrived boldly in the first week of November. Here on Anchorage's Hillside, we received more than two feet of snow in seven days and the temperature fell fast below zero degrees F. The precipitous drop into Alaska's longest, harshest season, and my dashed dreams of a prolonged autumn, stir memories of last year when winter made an unusually delayed appearance.

That balmy early November produced all manner of strange occurrences: swirling clouds of midges dancing in the mild air; late-blooming wild roses adding bright splashes of pink to an otherwise somber forest; and moose browsing on still-green lawns.

Most extraordinary of all was a congregation of swans and people at Potter Marsh, a well-known local wetland.

I first noticed the swans in late October last year. A handful of them swam and fed in the marsh. Big and snowy white, they stood out against the marsh's drab late-fall grays and browns.

The presence of swans was not in itself unusual. They stop here each fall while migrating south. But most autumns the swans stay only a short while; that year, they lingered. Day by day, their numbers grew. By the end of October more than 40 had gathered.

Soon even those who normally pay little attention to birds began to take notice. People driving the Seward Highway past the marsh would slow down and gawk. Some pulled over and rolled down their windows or got out of their cars and pickups. More and more people headed down to the marsh with cameras and binoculars. Whole families stood along the highway shoulder, pointing and smiling.

How strange it seemed, this autumnal convergence of swans and people. No stranger than the weather, though. By month's end we Anchorage residents were celebrating the warmest snow-free October on record.

As October gave way to November, the ground remained bare. Temperatures ranged from the mid 30s to high 40s. Normally covered by ice and snow, Potter Marsh continued to be a haven for the swans. I joined the throngs the first weekend of November - armed with notebook, binoculars, and bird book - and counted 30 swans, including nine pairs of adults and a dozen adolescent birds wearing the pale gray plumage of youth.

Trumpeter and tundra swans are difficult to tell apart, but after studying my guide, I was sure the ones nearer shore were trumpeters: They displayed a distinctive pink line where the upper and lower parts of their beak joined.

These largest of North American waterfowl were both elegant and comical. Their grand size, strikingly white plumage, and long, graceful necks gave them a regal splendor. Yet any sense of elegance disappeared when they tilted bottom-up to feed - then they became feathered buoys bobbing in muddied waters. And their hoarse honking calls, though vaguely trumpetlike, were more reminiscent of clowns squeezing horns.

A woman with a giggling young daughter joined me. "Can you believe all this?" she asked. "It's the craziest thing." It was clear she meant not only the weather and swans, but also the number of people who'd been drawn out of their houses to gape.

Returning home in late afternoon, I asked my mother if she'd like to visit Potter Marsh. She doesn't leave the house much anymore, but this seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.

Bundled up, Mom settled into the front passenger seat and sat quietly, patiently, as we drove down to Anchorage's flats in the gathering dusk. As we approached the marsh, the swans almost glowed in the fading light. "There they are, off to the right," I said, and pointed. "Can you see them?"

Mom leaned forward and squinted. A few moments of silence, then "Yes; yes, I see them now. There's lots of them, aren't there?"

I pulled over to the highway's shoulder and unrolled her window. Then I focused my binoculars and handed them over. At first she had trouble finding the swans, but then she got them in sight. "Oh, they're such pretty birds. And big. I didn't realize how big they are, compared to ducks," she whispered. "Look at their necks; they're so long and slender."

We chuckled as the swans dunked for food, smiled at their trumpeting. Decades ago, we'd watched swans in zoos and on game farms. But this was the first time we'd been together in the company of wild swans. It was a treat for both us, just as it had been for the mother and her giggling daughter and so many other local folks.

The unusual gathering of swans had produced something even rarer in these times: families and friends taking time out from their hectic, insulated, tied-to-technology lives and coming together for the simple delight of communing with wild nature.

After 10 minutes or so, I rolled up the window, started the car, and rejoined the highway traffic. "They are so lovely," Mom murmured, her eyes still drawn to the marsh where magnificent pale birds floated into the November night, autumnal apparitions.

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