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Longboat Key Wednesday, May 20, 2009 13 years ago

Swan lake

by: Robin Hartill Managing Editor

The five cygnets glided gracefully through the pond, each a natural swimmer. After 14 years of watching the swan family that has lived behind Harbour Links Drive at the Longboat Key Club and Resort’s Bay Isles, resident David Novak knew that the cygnets, or baby swans, were about two days old.

On its first day of life, a cygnet typically hangs out in the nest. On its second day, it heads for the water. Novak spotted the young swans April 24, so they probably hatched April 22.

He had a good feeling about the nest’s odds during the 35-day incubation period.

Born to a pair of swans named Vickie and Henry, the five cygnets looked equal in their ability — not a weakling in the bunch. With the five new additions, the Harbour Links extended swan family now has 15 members.

Nesting mode
Novak was feeling optimistic when he placed a bale of hay near a pump house on the golf course. It was March — prime mating season.

Novak hoped that at least one of the mated pairs would nest.

There are three pairs: Alan and Beverly, named for Harbour Links residents Alan Stone and his wife, Beverly. Alan Stone brought the original swans, Gracie and George, to the golf course 14 years ago, as an anniversary gift for Beverly; Wendy and Stan, named for the
“South Park” characters; and Vickie and Henry, named for Vickie Workman, aka “Miss Vickie,” who works at the Longboat Key Publix, and her husband, Henry.

Last year, four cygnets from the nest of Wendy and Stan hatched, one of which survived. Vickie and Henry’s nest had seven hatchlings, three of which survived.

This year, all three pairs formed nests, but Vickie and Henry formed theirs first. They nested in a small tree near a shed. Throughout the 35-day incubation period, Vickie sat on the nest “religiously,” according to Novak. Henry was another story. He often wandered away, leaving Vickie to sit on the nest by herself.

Typically, a male swan will take a turn sitting on the nest for a half-hour or so, in order to give the female a chance to feed. Henry was more concerned with feeding himself and swimming.

“She turned out to be a good mother,” Novak said. “He was the vagabond father.”

But that all changed when the cygnets hatched. Now, Henry is a protective father. He and Vickie follow the cygnets wherever they go and swim close by to make sure they aren’t out of their sight. That will probably change by next spring, because parent swans usually abandon their offspring then to prepare for the next nest.

Growing family
For the other two nests, chances of additional cygnets hatching didn’t look good. The nest of Alan and Beverly had four eggs; now it is empty. A predator, such as an owl, could have taken the eggs.

As for Stan and Wendy, their nest contained four eggs, but they had been sitting on it for approximately six weeks — usually the point, according to Novak, at which if eggs haven’t hatched, they are unlikely to do so. But, on Friday, May 15, two cygnets hatched from the nest, which brings the swan-family total up to 17.

Because swans have a life expectancy between 18 and 25 years, the swan family still has plenty of time to expand even more.

Plus, last year’s surviving cygnets could mate in the coming years, although swans don’t normally have fertile nests until they reach the age of four. Of the four survivors, two seem to have paired, according to Novak. He is thinking of giving them names of tennis stars, because they spend so much time near the Key Club’s new Tennis Gardens facility. Of the other two, one seems to hang out with the young couple but doesn’t have a mate. The fourth cygnet is more of a loner — Novak has already dubbed him “Loner.”

As for the newest seven cygnets, they’ll have to wait until they’re older for their names.

How to help
The best way to help the swans is by doing as little as possible for the swans, because they are technically wild animals. Here are some tips from unofficial “swan keeper” David Novak:
•Stay at least 20 feet away from the cygnets. Getting closer can endanger swans by domesticating them, which makes them vulnerable to predators.
•Do not feed the swans. They receive the nourishment they need from their habitat and can develop a deformation called “angel wings” from other food sources.
•Do not attempt to rescue an injured cygnet. It is against Florida law to do so.

Curious about George?
George and Gracie were the original Harbour Links swans, but George was left on his own when Gracie died suddenly of botulism, a form of poisoning, in April 2007.

George and his four cygnets were moved to Lakeland to avoid poisoning, although the cygnets were placed in a separate pond because George abandoned them.

David Novak, a Harbour Links resident, has heard from acquaintances that George is still in the Lakeland pond today. And, rumor has it, he has found a new mate.

Contact Robin Hartill at [email protected].

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