A Story of Two Swans and a Snipe

Friday, May. 17, 2019
By Marie Mischel
Intermountain Catholic

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The truth of this proverb was revealed to me three times in the space of 10 days, all in similar circumstances involving one of my favorite hobbies.

When I began birdwatching two years ago I started keeping a list of the species I’d seen. I’m closing in on 250 here in Utah, which is home to about 325 species that are either permanent residents or that typically migrate through. My list also includes a few birds that probably escaped from captivity or were released into the wild. The mute swan that inhabits Tonaquint Park in St. George is a recent example of this.

An elegant white bird featured in European fairy tales, the mute swan is a native of Europe.  One hundred or so years ago, these birds were imported to the United States by zoos, city parks and owners of large estates. Some of the birds escaped; there are now breeding populations in various areas of the U.S. but not, I should note, in Utah. The one in Tonaquint Park is on its own.

After taking a photo of the statuesque swan swimming serenely in the late afternoon light, I met a couple who have been birdwatching for 20 years. They couldn’t be bothered to go look for the mute swan, which they didn’t consider worth counting because it wasn’t native to the area. Of course, with a life list that exceeds 2,000 species, it’s entirely likely that they have seen the birds in their native habitat.

Two days after my outing in St. George, I was traveling with my mother through Idaho on the way to my niece’s college graduation. At lunchtime we stopped at the Camas National Wildlife Refuge. There we happened upon a pair of trumpeter swans. This, too, was a new species for me. Although the occasional trumpeter swan does fly through Utah, I’d never seen one before.

The photographs I took of the birds clearly shows them  lying on some reeds in the full sunlight, but there’s nothing aesthetically pleasing about the pictures, so I don’t like them nearly as much as the ones of the mute swan.

Because one of the birds was banded, I submitted two of the photos to the Trumpeter Swan Society, which is working to restore this once-endangered species to its native habitat. The researcher immediately emailed me, asking for permission to publish my photos as documentation because the banded bird is one of three being studied to determine why their young aren’t surviving.

“Beautiful photos,” she wrote, and to her they probably are.

A week later Mother’s Day dawned clear and bright, so I took my mom birdwatching again. At Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area we came across a Wilson’s snipe. (Yes, despite its mythical status achieved through the practical joke of snipe hunts, there is such a creature as a snipe.)

The Wilson’s snipe is native to the U.S.; it is about the same length as a robin, although it weighs roughly twice as much. This pudgy shorebird has feathers of brown, buff and black that provide excellent camouflage. Even though these birds can be found in Utah most of the year, they tend to be secretive creatures. They’re hard to find, difficult to photograph, and I’ve only seen them twice in all the times I’ve visited Farmington Bay, but Mom shrugged at its unassuming appearance.

Going on down the road, we found a pair of Sandhill cranes, another common species in Utah, but in looks completely opposite to the snipe. Standing more than three feet tall, these impressive creatures are easily spotted this time of year as they stride across fields in search of food.  Mom and I watched the cranes for quite some time.

Heading out, we passed a couple of photographers snapping pictures of a snipe in plain sight close to the road – ideal conditions for photography. Mom asked if we should tell them about the Sandhill cranes just a short distance away.

“No,” I said. “To them, the snipe is more beautiful. Good Sandhill crane photos are a dime a dozen. Right now, those photographers are actually succeeding at a snipe hunt.”

Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic. She can be reached at www.icatholic.org.

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