Stretching Trumpeter Swans

On about any Winter day, you can usually find between 20 and 40 Trumpeter Swans at the north end of Jackson, WY.  Flat Creek winds its way through the National Elk Refuge on its way to the Snake River south of Jackson. After a cold night or cold spell, Flat Creek freezes. Swans hunker down on the ice during the coldest hours, but become active as the morning sun warms the area. It’s during this “waking up” period that you will have a great chance to see and photograph Trumpeter Swans stretching their wings. This page features a full sequence of photos of a beautiful Swan stretching while standing on the frozen creek.

You have to be ready!  A typical “stretch” lasts only three or four seconds.

Swan Stretching 1

When ready, the Trumpeters thrust their chest, then begin a stretching sequence. 

Swan Stretching 2

If your camera can capture 30 frames per second, and if a stretch lasts three or four seconds, it’s possible to end up with 75 to 125 photos from a single stretch. That’s of course, if your camera’s buffer can handle that many shots in a burst before it hits the camera’s buffer! A camera that can capture 12 frames per second can still get great shots.

Swan Stretching 3

For this page, I pulled out around 25 images from roughly 80 I captured. I am showing roughly one out of three in the sequence.

Swan Stretching 4

While I often photograph Swans by handholding my camera and lens, a tripod can come in handy if you are waiting for one to start flapping. It’s easy to get tired hand holding the gear in the ready position for extended periods.

Swan Stretching 5

Typically, a Trumpeter will do at least two cycles of the wing positions, and each of those seem to get more pronounced. From my experience, three cycles is most common.

Swan Stretching 6

Swans often stretch just after waking up from their overnight sleep. They usually stretch after a period of preening. Anytime I see one “porpoising”, I can almost always expect to see one of the wing flap events. When they porpoise, they dive to just under the water and back up. They can do this 10 to 20 times before stretching. I think of it as their bath time and the wing flaps as a way to shake off the water and realign all of their feathers.

Swan Stretching 7

A camera capturing frames at a relatively high speed reveals a wide variety of wing positions. Obviously, I like some of the wing positions more than others.

Swan Stretching 8

This Swan was just getting “warmed up”.

Swan Stretching 9

As they begin their second cycle, their wing strokes become a bit more pronounced.

Swan Stretching 10

Swan Stretching 11

Swan Stretching 12

Swan Stretching 13

During the second cycle, the wing reach is more pronounced. If your camera has a limited buffer, you might consider waiting to start shooting until the Swan is about half way through its stretch.

Swan Stretching 14

Swan Stretching 15

Swan Stretching 16

Swan Stretching 17

Swan Stretching 18

Swan Stretching 19

By this cycle, the wing tips can almost touch in the front and its head is usually higher.

Swan Stretching 20

Swan Stretching 21

Swan Stretching 23

At about this stage in the third cycle, the Swan will begin to relax its wings as they drop to their folded positions.

Swan Stretching 24

Swan Stretching 25

When it’s all over, the Trumpeter folds its wings over its back again. At this point, scan the area for other Swans porpoising or preening. Often you can get four or five stretching Swans in a relatively short period of time. Of the group, some will be facing the wrong direction or another Swan will be in the way. One or two good sets would be considered a good morning.

The previous set of images was taken at 9:30 in the morning with a Sony A1 camera and a Sony 200-600mm lens. All were taken at 1/3200 second at f/7.1, Manual Mode, ‒ 1 EV, Auto ISO 500, Tripod. The Sony autofocus method was: Continuous High+, Bird Eye Tracking, Expanded Spot in Compressed Raw format.

Bath Time

If you are not familiar with their behavior, watch for any Swan that looks like it is taking a bath. It’s almost always an indication that a wing flap is imminent!


Trumpeter Swans can be quite territorial. Often, after a skirmish, one or both will flap in a form of victory celebration.

Trumpeter Swan

The sequence group on this page were taken straight-on, but they look great from either side or at a diagonal.

Trumpeter Swans

The primary place to photograph Trumpeters is along Flat Creek at the north edge of town, though they can be seen scattered along the Snake River. Once Oxbow freezes over, most of them move south to the Flat Creek area. While I personally prefer flight shots, fight shots, or stretching, it is also possible to capture some wonderful swimming photos if the light is right! For years, we were able to get reliable photos at the Boyle’s Hill Pond, but the Wetlands Society managers added a fence that keeps the wild Trumpeters from getting to the food they put out for the captive breeding Swans.

Additional Trumpeter Swan Feature Posts


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