Move over, bald eagles. Trumpeter swans are stealing the hearts of many bird-watchers in the St. Louis region.
About 960 of the graceful white birds, which disappeared from the Midwest a century ago, are spending the winter at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary in West Alton, Mo. That's nearly double last year's population of 510.
The stunning migration has turned the Audubon Center at Riverlands into a tourist hotspot. More than 4,500 people passed through its doors over the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.
"This has certainly been the best year ever for people to come out and watch trumpeter swans," said ecologist Lane Richter, 28, of St. Louis.
"And it's the first year that (the general public has) really noticed the swans just driving by. They see the little white dots in the bay, and they stop in to ask about them. In the past, it seems like it's been all about bald eagles."
Media coverage also has increased, telling the story of a five-decade waterfowl-restoration effort that was gradual but successful.
It's been a wild ride for Brent and Dee Schindewolf, volunteers who count swans once a week and join other citizen scientists for official government record-keeping twice a month.
"I remember about 10 years ago, we were so excited," said Brent, 69, of Godfrey, a retired school principal. "We had counted 199 swans, and we were hoping to hit 200. Birders love those zero-zero-ending numbers."
On Monday morning, the Schindewolfs were gazing through spotting scopes at the Audubon Center, a $3.3-million bird-watching facility opened three years ago by the National Audubon Society and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Its two-story lobby is lined with floor-to-ceiling windows that curve two-thirds of the way around, giving visitors panoramic views of the Mississippi River, Alton skyline, Clark Bridge and Missouri wetlands, marshes, prairie and bottomland forest.
But most people focus on Ellis Bay, where swans roost on the water at night, stretch and preen in the morning, take off in search of food during the day and return at sunset for a night's rest.
"I would be remiss if I didn't say that I look out there and see evidence of God's creation," Schindewolf said. "That's a very important motivation for us."
Other visitors that morning were Jim and Helen Johnson, retired teachers who had driven two hours from Rolla, Mo. They planned to spend the day along the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri rivers, mainly looking for bald eagles but happy to see other birds.
Siblings Holly Melchers and Jerry McKune were taking photos for their father, an 83-year-old photographer who was too ill to travel.
"We're on a mission to get some pictures of trumpeters, or whatever we can get, so he can take the raw images and edit them and crop them and come up with something he likes," said McKune, 58, of Chesterfield, Mo.
Restoring bird habitat
The Corps owns about 110,000 acres along the Mississippi from St. Louis to Louisiana, Mo. That includes 3,700 acres at Riverlands.
Biologists are working to restore historical conditions and provide habitat for native plants and animals, as well as birds that migrate from Canada and the Great Lakes along the Mississippi Flyway.
"We have documentation from the government land office in the 1800s that a large portion of St. Charles County was a floodplain prairie system," said Wildlife Biologist Ben McGuire, 28, of Edwardsville.
Trumpeter swans are considered North America's largest native waterfowl. They're about 4 feet tall in a standing position and weigh an average of 25 pounds. The name comes from their trumpet-like call.
In the 1930s, officials determined only 69 swans existed in the lower 48 states, isolated in southwestern Montana. They had lost habitat to development and been hunted for meat, skin and feathers.
The Trumpeter Swan Society formed in the 1960s and helped with Minnesota restoration efforts that later expanded to Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa.
"In 1991, the first five trumpeter swans were spotted (in Riverlands) by the Army Corps of Engineers," Richter said.
Like bald eagles, swans migrate from frigid weather up north in the winter, allowing them to find unfrozen water for roosting and feeding.
Today, the birds start arriving at Riverlands in late October or early November and leave in early to mid-February.
"They're usually gone by the end of February," McGuire said. "But this year, as cold as it is, they might still be here in March. Who knows?"
The return of trumpeter swans has significantly raised Riverlands' profile. Ornithological experts recently designated it a Globally Important Bird Area.
On Monday morning, the Schindewolfs spent about an hour at the Audubon Center before grabbing their binoculars and heading to Heron Pond, another swan hangout.
The couple's last stop was the sanctuary's Avian Observatory, a futuristic-looking metal structure on a hill with openings for viewing and some wind protection. But temperatures in the teens got to be too much.
"I've just about had it, honey," Dee said. "My fingers are getting numb. I'm ready to go home for some hot chocolate."
"I think I've had enough fun, too," her husband replied, noting they had seen about 750 trumpeter swans, 25 bald eagles, goldeneyes, Canada geese and Harris hawks that day. "I'm ready for some biscuits and gravy."
Contact reporter Teri Maddox at email@example.com or 239-2473.
At a glance
What: Audubon Center at Riverlands
Where: Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, 301 Riverlands Way, West Alton, Mo. (across the Clark Bridge from Alton)
Hours: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily
Admission: Free (donations welcome)
Trumpeter swan fact sheet
Name: Comes from trumpet-like call
Height: About 4 feet tall in standing position (nearly 6 feet with outstretched neck and legs)
Weight: 22 to 32 pounds for males and 20 to 25 pounds for females
Color: White with black bills and feet for both genders
Life expectancy: Average 15 to 25 years
Food: Mainly aquatic vegetation and unharvested grains
Nesting: Females lay four to six cream-colored eggs in giant nests
Flight speed: Between 40 and 80 mph