Editor’s Note: This story is part of "Headwaters to Harbor," a project by The Chronicle to document the Chehalis River from Pe Ell to Grays Harbor while highlighting people and issues connected to the river along the way. Our coverage is compiled at www.chronline.com/Chehalis-River.
This isn’t the first time Jay Gordon has been in The Chronicle.
A member of the Chehalis Basin Flood Authority, former executive director of the Washington Dairy Federation, friend and neighbor of former Chehalis Tribal Chairman Dave Burnett and a sixth-generation farmer on his land between Porter and Elma — Gordon has been there through all the politics of Chehalis River Basin issues.
I took an interest in him for another reason entirely. In early 2021, Gordon invited me to come see some unique birds on his land: trumpeter swans and sandhill cranes. To Fish and Wildlife’s knowledge, the sandhill cranes on his farm are the most northern wintering flock of the bird anywhere.
In around 1779, Gordon’s great-great-great-grandparents began farming in the eastern United States before eventually settling on the land where he resides today. In 1872, Ulysses S. Grant signed the deed granting the homestead along the Chehalis to Gordon’s family.
But that was well before the first sighting of a trumpeter swan on the land. Gordon’s father took a picture of the first trumpeter swans recorded on the property in 1974. There were four of them. And every year, they brought more with them.
By 1999, Gordon had about 750 trumpeter swans grazing on corn in his fields during the winter. Someone from the Trumpeter Swan Society informed him that meant about 5% of the entire species was on his property.
“At that time, the estimate from (a Fish and Wildlife) survey was that 80% of the trumpeters were on dairying land,” Gordon said. “A follow up survey later found that it was really closer to 100% of the forage production. Cornfields and grass fields from dairy was what was sustaining the swans, and the population had grown from less than 800 in the 30s to, at that time, about to about 20,000.”
Now in 2022, the population is closer to 25,000 or 27,000. With Gordon’s farm tucked away off U.S. Highway 12, it may not be apparent how plentiful the swans are. But a drive along Bunker Creek Road in Adna or through the Skagit Valley between late November and the end of February is likely to yield sights of thousands of the birds, which are the heaviest native bird in North America.
Gordon and others involved in swan conservation theorize that the combination of corn providing winter feed and dairy manure fertilizing land keep the swans coming back.
To both benefit from his farming and see the ways his practices have helped native species is rewarding to Gordon.
Then, just a few years ago, a new — and even more exotic — family arrived at the farm in the winter: sandhill cranes. Taller and much more plump than a great blue heron, the sandhill crane’s call can be heard up to 4 miles away. Like the swans, there were just a few the first winter. There were about 17 in 2021, and over 50 in the 2021-2022 winter.
The tall gray birds dance and fight on Gordon’s flooded fields with a backdrop of silver skies, evoking traditional crane paintings of Japan right along the Chehalis River. Seeing the cranes at his place in 2021 was one of my all-time bird watching highlights.
With the help of the Trumpeter Swan Society, Gordon has dedicated the land to being kept as proper swan habitat in perpetuity, which it appears will also benefit the cranes. The contract states the land must be grazed, burned or mowed, providing 35 acres of night roost swan habitat. Swans, he said, enjoy open, wet fields without trees.
“When you see those swans come back every year like clockwork and they bring their families and they grow and they're growing in numbers and there's more of them, it's validation that they like it,” Gordon said. “How many people get to have that in society today? Almost none, certainly. You go, ‘Hey, I’m doing a good job being a steward.’ Well, how do you know that? Because the swan families come back every year, and they bring their kids.”