Volume 12, Issue 46 ~ November 11 - November 17, 2004

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Bay Life

Some Things You Can Count On
Like Clockwork, Tundra Swans Return to Chesapeake Bay
by Bruce Bauer • illustration by Nancy Bauer

Armistice Day or Veterans Day, November 11 is traditional Tundra Swan day to me and some of the other watchers around the thousands of miles of the Chesapeake’s shore. These great white birds drop down from high altitudes in a maneuver called “swanfall” by Tom Horton, Baltimore Sun columnist, in his beautiful book by that name. They whiffle down, spilling air from their wings by rocking from side to side. They are not observing any period of silence but making raucous whoopings and howlings, seemingly in celebration of the end of a long voyage.

Once down low in a landing pattern, they straighten out into the wind in formations of twos and threes (for they are strong on family togetherness), boring in like heavy seaplanes or — better — like the space shuttle on touchdown at a high angle of attack. At the last minute, their shiny, black, Ping-Pong-paddle-size feet are cocked up to breaking position. Then the splashy touchdown.

I’ll admit that some advance elements of migrators might arrive ahead of schedule. On the morning of November 8, half a dozen early birds swam in front of our house in Masons Beach, and I could see probably a dozen over Fairhaven way. A decade ago, I counted swans a couple of times a week all season, and my high total for Masons Beach was 160. The size of the flock fluctuates as individuals visit around other coves and creeks.

Flying Machines
These tundra swans are among the largest of all flying birds, with the males about 22 pounds and the females two pounds daintier. Less common trumpeter swans, the largest waterfowl, get up to about 30 pounds. While domestic turkeys, ostriches and cassowaries get considerably bigger, size has cost them the power of flight. Tundra wingspan is about six feet, compared to the trumpeter’s seven to eight, the condor’s eight and the great albatross’s 12 feet.

Tundras were formerly called whistling swans, although among the wide range of sounds they do make, nobody ever claimed to have heard a whistle. Someone explained, unconvincingly, that they cleave the air in flight so fast that it whistles.

Just how fast they go is known by computation of distance and time while migrating. From sightings and distance measurements, experts have figured that they travel about 50mph during transits. Top speed is harder to determine, but pilots report considerably higher speeds when an airplane approaches them from astern. Aerodynamically, the swan’s body is of superior design, better even than the hawk’s and other fast flying raptors’.

Swans differ from Canada geese in flight in that they don’t use that large, regular V flying formation but straggle along in twos and threes — families we like to think. Individual birds can be distinguished from geese because their necks are longer, about two-thirds of total flying length. The windpipe looped within that neck is about four feet long stretched and is further remarkable because it is designed to conduct air two ways at once. The tundra is constantly taking in and expelling breath while flying.

Tundra is really a better first name for these swans because that’s where they are hatched and spend summers, way up near the Arctic Circle in the northern extremes of Alaska and Canada’s Northwest Territories, in the western hemisphere.

Tundra is Russian for marshy plain. It means treeless, soggy, grassy plain with mud, ooze, mosquitoes, predators such as fox and weasel, high winds and excruciating winter. Young swans are born there on a little mound of mud and grass in mid-summer and have a remarkably short time, say 60 days, to grow feathers, strengthen wings, take flight lessons and get out of there before the weather shuts down flight operations. Long-termers and slow learners are lost.

Of the 100,000 or so estimated North American tundra swan population, about two-thirds winter on the East Coast of the United States. The long migration proceeds in stages down the continent. Swans stop over in lake areas of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba in Canada and along the northern U.S. border in places like Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota.

Fueling for Flight
They lay over for a month or so somewhere en route, stocking up on several pounds a day of pondweed with its high-energy food value. Calories are crucial not only because of the rigors of the long jump to the Chesapeake but also because the food supply here over the winter is, let’s face it, slim.

Then there’s that long northward spring trip, perhaps against the wind. Tundras lose as much as 90 percent of their stored body fat during wintering over. Forty years ago, in the period known as the good old days, shallow water in places like West River was choked with seaweed. Swans must have been much better fed on their preferred foods.

What swans find to eat in Chesapeake Country these days is hard to say. In front of our house at Masons Beach in November when the tide is out and northerly winds help push ebb tide water down the Bay and retard the flood tides, the mud bottom may be exposed for 200 yards or more. A few rocks have some small amount of a sort of leafy weed attached, but there is no widespread crop of anything looking edible.

Swans will eat soft-shelled clams when they can find them, but a long tramp on the bare mud flats reveals no traces of them in water shallow enough for swan feeding.

The scarcity of Bay grass has forced swans into the cornfields in increasing numbers. But while Canada geese are happy munching on the 10 percent of the corn crop lost on the ground by automated harvesting and have been wooed away from traditional feeding by it, tundras don’t like grubbing around in the stubble. For one thing, the lack of protective water makes them nervous. In fact, they usually spend nights afloat even if forced to dine ashore.

Quite a few people along the shore feed the swans, usually dried corn, which they can apparently find on the muddy bottom without difficulty. Early in the season, they are shy and will not approach the corn flinger on the shore. After a few weeks, they will paddle right over when called if they recognize a benefactor. With their astonishingly keen eyesight, they can tell from a long way off if you are carrying a container. My wife, Nancy, gets them to come flying in from half a mile away if she’s carrying corn. I have tried to get them to come if I just hoot swanlike sounds at them, but it doesn’t work. When a tundra gives you a disgusted look, it’s devastating.

Bruce Bauer has reported swanfall to Bay Weekly since our first year, 1993. This year’s report reprises much of his first story 13 years ago.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.