It's almost time for the annual release of the trumpeter swan cygnets that has become an annual Storm Lake harbinger of spring.
Just one problem.
There are no swans to release. Not a one.
No new cygnets survived last year, on the heels of a record-setting hatch the year before.
"We don't know what happened to the hatch last year," said longtime Buena Vista Swan Restoration Committee member Mark Kirkholm, Storm Lake.
"We have spoken to the experts at the Department of Natural Resources too, and all we can think is that is has to do with the weather conditions last spring - there were no other external forces we could identify."
Most of the resident swan pairs belonging to the program did not hatch out any eggs. A pair at Sioux Rapids saw the only hatch, and all of the young birds died shortly after hatching.
For the first time since it started releasing year-old birds into the wild a number of years ago, the group has nothing to set free this spring.
The DNR may come to the rescue.
Kirkholm said that the DNR swan experts have indicated that they are searching for another program with young swans from which a few could be "borrowed" in order to have another release at Storm Lake. If birds can be obtained, the committee will announce a release site and date for the public.
The good news is that the swan program, the largest private, all-volunteer trumpeter swan anti-extinction program in the state, is beginning to see its ultimate goal realized.
"One day 14 wild swans were seen on our Swan Pond north of Storm Lake, and eight had no bands on them, so they were hatched out wild," Kirkholm said.
"That shows just tremendous success for this program. The intention was never to raise captive birds, but to create a program that would lead to a self-sustaining population of swans in the wild, and now we are seeing wild swans flying in the Storm Lake area fairly often. It's pretty amazing."
The trumpeters, the largest waterbird in North America with wingspans up to eight feet, were native to this area, but were driven into extinction for their meat and feathers, which were used for items like hats and quill pens. Shortly after the area was settled, the last swan hatch was seen before 1880.
The swan committee, founded a decade ago, located a few rare birds that had been found as part of a surviving flock in an isolated area of Alaska.
The committee retains five flightless pairs of resident birds, which winter on the Swan Pond site and are relocated to area ponds in Buena Vista, Pocahontas and Sac counties each spring to allow for nesting.
"We are gearing up for that process as soon as the ice is out," Kirkholm said. Catching the elusive swans - which possess wings powerful enough to knock a large man down - is always an adventure.
"The DNR feels we are now close to having that self-sustaining population here, so our goal will be to maintain what we have and hopefully see a good hatch of cygnets for this year," Kirkholm added.
It is hoped that the released birds will rediscover the migration routes that were native to swans here, attract mates, and return to nest in the Buena Vista County region to raise their young in the wild.
There are always setbacks.
One of three birds released on Little Storm Lake last year for the first attempt to return birds to the lake area, was found dead. The carcass had been preyed upon to the point where cause of death could not be determined. Illegal hunting is a possibility, but there is no evidence if that is the case.
Another bird was injured and had to be taken to an area rehabilitation specialist.
A few of the younger birds that had been located near Palmer this year are believed to be part of a new state effort to transport Iowa swans to Arkansas, in hopes that they will establish a migration pattern between the two states that other wild birds can follow.
"The DNR has been a great partner in our program all the way, and if the state wishes to use some of our birds for this, we will be supportive of that," Kirkholm said.
After a decade of effort, the local committee established by former local DNR officer Chris Lloyd now "speaks for itself," Kirkholm said.
"It's been a pretty unbelieveable experience. And even if the state says that it has reached its goal for trumpeter swans, we will continue our efforts for as long as we possibly can to support a wild populations of swans in our reagion," said Kirkholm. "Our committee would really like to thanks everyone who has supported this concept from the beginning."
* Donations are still welcome, and needed to provide food and veterinary care for the resident birds. They can be mailed or dropped off to BV Swan Restoration, in care of Dana Larsen, Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune, P.O. Box 1187, 527 Cayuga Street, Storm Lake, 50588.