Watching a flight of trumpeter swans sweep down from the sky on massive wings to land gracefully on Magness Lake in Cleburne County, it’s easy to appreciate what the state’s early settlers saw in these birds: Beautiful, graceful, and delicious, easy targets.
By the 1880s, the good people of Arkansas had essentially eaten their way through the state’s trumpeter swan population. But their numbers have been on the rebound since a few returned in the 1990s, primarily to Magness Lake. Magness Lake is part of the private E & W Wildlife Refuge, founded in 2004 by Larry and Pat Eason, the owners of the property. Their son Brian, who lives in Memphis, said his parents (his father is now deceased) wanted to provide an area that would protect the swans and provide other Arkansans exposure to the birds.
The Eason family built the viewing area and installed educational plaques, and have worked with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) to spread the word about it.
This winter, some 1,000 or more are expected to stop at Magness, and some nearby lakes and ponds on their winter migration from the North. The AGFC has arranged with property owners to provide viewing areas for residents interested in seeing these phenomenal birds — North America’s largest waterfowl — up close. They usually begin arriving in November and leave during February.
“There’s some wonderful waterfowl-watching up at Magness Lake and the [nearby]ponds,” said Karen Rowe, the bird conservation program leader at the AGFC’s Hampton Waterfowl Research Center. “We give a big thank you and shout out to the Easons, who own Magness Lake, and to the people who own the satellite lakes on Hiram Road [several miles to the east], who let the public enjoy the swans.”
Now protected by law from hunting, the swans serve not only as a seasonal attraction, but as a barometer of the health of the lakes they visit. “They’re an indicator species, not unlike the check-engine light that comes on in your car when something’s wrong,” explained Rowe. “But they’re indicating something’s good, that this is quality habitat. They are indicating we have good wetland habitat here in Arkansas.”
In the wild, the swans eat the tuber-like roots of emergent wetland plants, aquatic vegetation that grows near shore, Rowe said. Additionally, the owners of the lakes where the swans are wintering have installed corn feeders to supplement their diet. Such feed must be kept fresh because moldy corn could make the swans and other animals ill, she noted.
Trumpeters aren’t the only swans in Arkansas, but they are the only ones that were once native. Another species — mute swans, which aren’t native to the U.S. — is actually a cause of trouble, said Rowe.“People are importing mute swans and releasing them on their property against Game and Fish regulations,” she said. “Mute swans will rip up [aquatic vegetation], waste it, make the water turbid, reduce the habitat for fish. Also, people are letting them breed and their offspring are living here in the wild. If you look 30 to 50 years down the road, these feral mute swans will be a serious problem for our trumpeter swans because they compete for vegetation and ruin the lakes they are in.”
Since their annual return to the state at Magness Lake, trumpeters have been reported all the way from the northeast corner of Arkansas to Fairfield Bay to Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge outside of Dardanelle, said Rowe. They were also sighted for the first time this year at Frog Bayou Wildlife Management Area near Alma.
They add to what Rowe calls “wonderful waterfowl watching” in the state, including some of her personal favorites like buffleheads and ring-necked ducks. But there’s definitely something special about the trumpeters. “I think the swans are a great unifier,” she said. “There’s not anyone who doesn’t get excited seeing a trumpeter swan. It brings everyone together to enjoy these great birds.”
To view the swans, take Arkansas 110 east for 3.9 miles from its intersection with Arkansas 5 and 25 near Heber Springs. Turn left onto Hays Road. Magness Lake is half a mile down Hays Road.
Eric Francis is a Little Rock-based writer.