Dorothy is a master gardener, former newspaper reporter, and the author of several books. Michael is a landscape and nature photographer.
Swans Landed in Heber Springs in 1991
In the winter of 1991, three trumpeter swans arrived at Lake Magness near Heber Springs, Arkansas—considerably far from their normal path in the Midwest. No one really knows why they showed up, but they did. And they've been coming back every winter since. Way more than the original three (referred to as the "pilgrim swans") return each year: the number has grown significantly since that time and the count is now at about 300, according to Larry Jernigan, a long-time friend of ours who lives in Heber Springs and took all of the photos for this article. The swans also take advantage of some of the ponds that are nearby, but most of the sightings are at Lake Magness. They have created a unique birding experience for local residents and the millions of visitors to the area who come to fish in the Little Red River, which is regularly stocked with trout; or go boating on Greer's Ferry Lake. Hikers are also drawn to the area by the spectacular Sugar Loaf Mountain on the east side of Heber Springs. Whatever your interest, there's a lot to see and do in this part of Arkansas (Cleburne County), which is home to just over 25,000 people.
All of the photos in this article were provided by one of our oldest friends, the late Larry Jernigan of Heber Springs, formerly of our hometown, Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Larry was one of the most generous, gifted photographers I have ever known. May he rest in peace.
The Face of a Young Trumpeter Swan
Trumpeter Swan Facts
- They are the largest Northern American native waterfowl.
- They are one of the heaviest flying birds.
- Trumpeter swans are no longer more common in freshwater than saltwater, as they once were; the most important factors to them now are access to food, open waters, and protection.
- They are threatened by continued habitat loss and lead poisoning from pellets (apparently they ingest lead pellets to help with digestion of hard grains, and ingesting as few as three pellets can kill a trumpeter swan).
- By the 1930s there were fewer than 100 trumpeter swans south of Canada; they number over 15,000 currently in North America, and they are thriving.
- The scientific name of the trumpeter wan is Cygnus buccinator; Anseriformes (order); Anatidae (family).
- They lay their eggs near or on the water.
- They are considered riparians.
- They have bilateral symmetry (mirror image halves).
It Is Illegal to Harm, Injure, or Kill Swans in Arkansas
Trumpeter Swan in Flight
They Are Graceful Creatures
Swans Enjoying the Setting Sun
How to Find the Swans
The trumpeter swans don't have a set schedule, but they usually arrive in Arkansas sometime in late November and stay until late February or early March. If you are planning on a trip to view them, you should first check with the Heber Springs Chamber of Commerce and they should be able to tell you if they've arrived, or are still hanging around. (1-501-362-2444 8:30-4:30 Monday through Friday).
Directions to Lake Magness:
Go east on Arkansas Highway 110 from the intersection with Arkansas Highways 5 and 25, just east of Heber Springs. When you've gone 3.9 miles, you will see Sovereign Grace Baptist Church, which will be marked with a white sign. Begin looking for a very small sign at a paved road (Hays Road) and turn left onto it. Magness Lake is about half a mile down Hays Road.
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According to the local chamber, you can view the swans from a public road, and parking spaces are available on an S curve of the road. Shelled corn is the only feed recommended for them, but it can be bought at some of the downtown Heber Springs shops. Even though there will be a fence between you and Arkansas' version of "swan lake", the view is spectacular and, as you can see, great photos are possible if you have the skills.
Sociable and Enjoying Their Winter Home
They Don't Migrate or Fly South?
A report on the migratory birds of the great lakes funded by a University of Wisconsin sea-grant states that trumpet swans "remain year-round in much of their breeding range, wherever they can find food in ice-free streams and ponds. Those swans that do migrate generally go no further south than is necessary to find open water. Swans from the Great Lakes region either do not migrate or fly south into the mid-Mississippi valley."
Apparently, there are some exceptions, and they can be found during the winter months near Heber Springs, Arkansas.
The Best Time of the Day for Viewing Trumpeter Swans
During the mid-afternoon, some of the swans are probably going to be in flight, although there are always swans on the lake. Earlier in the day, they are likely to be finding food, returning around 3-4 in the afternoon, so the best time to see them is during the hours from the middle of the afternoon until dusk.
(Swans of all ages will be found on Lake Magness, but the ones with brownish or grey feathers are the younger birds; as they age, they become more white).
At the End of the Day
Links to Additional Resources on Trumpeter Swans
- How the Trumpeter Swan Was Almost Driven to Extinction
Early in the 20th century, the largest of the native waterfowl in North America, and one of our heaviest flying birds, the Trumpeter Swan was almost driven to extinction. Its healthy comeback is considered a success story for conservationists.
- How to Identify Trumpeter Swans
This site will show you how to identify a Trumpeter Swan, and further explains the life history of this fascinating animal.
© 2017 Mike and Dorothy McKenney