ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Southcentral Alaska sees plenty of visitors, but few draw local paparazzi like the guests that fly south every October: trumpeter and tundra swans.
Hundreds of swan pairs, some with gray juveniles, stop at lakes and ponds on their annual fall migration, drawing bird watchers to viewing areas such as Potter Marsh south of Anchorage.
The birds stand out like marshmallows on a patchwork quilt in the narrow, two-mile urban marsh between the Seward Highway and foothills of the Chugach Mountains. Photographers line up for a calendar shot of swans flying against a background of golden birch trees or making long glides to land among reeds turned tan from frost.
"It kind of encapsulates the end of the season for me," said Phil Pringle, who has been driving to the marsh for most of his 40 years in Anchorage. "Fall's just about over. We've got a couple more days of leaves on the trees. The swans are migrating from above the Arctic Circle and they're heading south, and this is one of their major stopovers, and it's just nice to get out before it gets too awfully cold."
Trumpeter swans with their 7-foot wingspans are North America's largest waterfowl, said biologist Dan Rosenberg, the state's migratory bird coordinator. Alaska accounted for 70 percent of the country's 35,000 trumpeters in 2005, he said. They nest in Alaska's interior and spend winters in southeast Alaska, British Columbia or Washington state.
Trumpeters are hard to distinguish from smaller tundra swans that breed closer to Alaska's west and northern coasts. Some tundra swans have a yellow spot near their eyes. Pairs breeding in the north can winter as far away as Chesapeake Bay or North Carolina, while western Alaska birds likely are on their way to California, Rosenberg said.
The first swans to arrive are adults without young, said artist and author Doug Lindstrand.
"The ones with the chicks come in last, because they keep them at their home base where they grew up, let them feed as long as they can, and then they start their migration," Lindstrand said.
During stops in Southcentral Alaska, swans linger to feed on marsh plants. Ducks shadow them as they forage.
"As the swans feed, they use their feet and their long neck to an advantage to churn up the bottom, and when they do that, a lot of the vegetation and growth comes to the surface that the mallards and puddle duck can't reach," Pringle said. "So they just migrate to the swans, if you will. It's a free food source."
The swans get annoyed if the ducks get too close.
"They'll yank tail feathers if they can catch them," Pringle said. People often mistake the clingy ducks for swan progeny, he said, but there won't be a fairy tale Ugly Duckling ending.
"They will never grow up to be beautiful swans," Pringle said, laughing.
Swans mate for life and are never far from their partners in the marsh.
They need a long stretch of water to land and a running start to take off. They often tip off their intention, Pringle said.
"Their head will start bobbing up and down and they start to get nervous and they'll start talking, communicating a little bit," Pringle said. "You can just hear the honk."
The swans draw people all day but veteran photographers wait for late afternoon and evening when the sun sinks low over Cook Inlet.
"You get this warm evening light on 'em," said Cathy Diehl. "It's just beautiful."
Diehl looks forward to the arrival of the swans because it gives her a chance to see friends.
"With all the photographers, you don't see them all summer, because they're off doing their thing," she said. "We all come together, it seems like, during birding season, just to watch the birds and swans."
If You Go...
POTTER MARSH: Trumpeter and tundra swan stopover in Southcentral Alaska near Anchorage. From Fifth Avenue in downtown Anchorage, drive south on Gambell Street, which becomes the Seward Highway. Ten miles from downtown, about a mile south of the DeArmoun Road overpass, is the turnoff on the left for the Potter Marsh boardwalk. Swans usually congregate near gravel turnouts at the south end of the marsh. The birds are usually around through the end of October, especially if ponds have not frozen over.