The Moment It Clicks: Photographic Stories #1: Trumpeter Swans

We live in a world of motion. John Muir knew it: “Everything is flowing—going somewhere… pulsed on and on forever like blood… in Nature’s warm heart.” Like flowing blood, motion means survival to most creatures. Call it the dance of life, the swirl of species.

There are many variations on the dance. Birds, animals, fish, and insects are moving around us all the time. But twice a year this swirl of species reaches a crescendo. Triggered by a slant of sunlight or dips in temperature, guided by inner compass bearings we hardly understand, millions of creatures are on the move each spring and fall in the grand spectacle of seasonal migration. Wildlife biologists estimate that one-third of all the birds on the planet migrate—that’s 5.7 billion birds on the wing over North America, sometimes in flocks so immense they appear on radar screens.

One of my favorite migration spectacles is the return of trumpeter swans. As soon as the rivers and streams begin to open, the swans begin to move north with the thaw, thrumming the spring air with their wingbeats. They are huge birds with a wingspan of over six feet, the largest waterfowl species native to North America. To stand beneath the swans arrowing across the spring sky, neck bent, ears buffeted by their wild calls, is to connect with an ancient dance, the spring migration.

They return each year to a bend in a small northern river not far from where I live. The first sight of them is often mirage-like. One day the river bend is empty. The next day there are swans. It is as if tufts of the very snow itself have sprouted wings.

It is not difficult to see them on this stretch of river but getting close enough to photograph them is not easy. They are wary and weary from their long trip. It seems intrusive to “stalk” them with a camera and risk disturbing them into wasting even more energy in fleeing. So, I don’t. I find a spot in the open, a place where they can see me clearly and avoid me if they wish. I just sit, reveling in simply being on the same river bend as these beautiful birds, letting them come nearer, or not. It is enough, and many days I go home without a single photograph.

But, one day, I had been in my spot for hours as geese, ducks, and swans swirled around me. I had taken very few photographs that day, just listening, watching. The warmth of the spring sun soon lulled me to sleep, my camera on my chest. But, before I dozed, I remembered something photographer Michael Melford had taught me once: always preset your camera to the conditions just in case. And, lucky I did.

I don’t know how long I slept but, I woke suddenly to the air above me being brushed by wings, a pair of swans passing directly overhead. I grabbed my camera without even sitting up with time for just one frame before they were gone. The photograph above is the result: one moment in the spring migration, one step in the dance of life.

(Prints of this photograph are available. If you are interested, drop me a message.)