The winter sojourn of the tundra swans
by Dotty Holcomb Doherty
As days shorten, anticipation in Bay Country grows. Our first waterfowl visitors from northern climes have already arrived: the rotund ruddy ducks, the black-and-white buffleheads, the horned grebes. Now, as November flies by, bird lovers scan the water daily. They listen for our grandest guests, those nomads from the Arctic: the tundra swans.
On great ivory wings they approach the Bay, the melodic hum of their voices arriving first. Their black webbed feet skid on the waiting water, their snowy breasts descending for a well-earned rest. Family groups, in flocks of hundreds, have spent the last two months en route, flying from the Arctic tundra in long V-shaped lines.
Their warbling songs drift over the slate-grey water. Pairs croon throughout the day and often all night. Rearing out of the water, wings akimbo, they face each other and trill, reaffirming their life-long bond. Gregarious but wary of non-family members, tundra swans may drop their wings, coil their necks or stare at their opponents, keeping them at a suitable distance. Moving from one foraging site to another, they run across the water before pumping into the quiet sky on whistling wings.
Long necks held high, black beaks slightly aloof, they claim this ancestral spot, shunning the mute swans, the recent and unwanted invaders. They will share the winter Bay with the geese and migrant ducks the bufflehead and ruddy, the canvasback and scaup all biding their time until the northern ice recedes.
The young, in dusky gray plumage, are only four months old. Their story begins in the far north, 4,000 miles away.
Hatched above the Arctic Circle near treeless coastal marshes and shallow ponds, the downy tundra cygnets grow amidst miniature wildflowers, lichens and mosses inches above the permafrost. Their mothers’ warm bodies protect them from the tundra’s chilling winds and clouds of voracious mosquitoes. Fathers guard their nests and young with a fierceness few dare challenge. Hatched while fireworks brighten our summer nights, the cygnets know only the darkness under their mothers’ breasts until August brings their first sunset.
Time is short. Winter comes early to the Arctic. The cygnets have 70 days to grow strong enough to fly, or they perish. Adult swans finish their molt, their gleaming fresh feathers contrasting with the cygnets’ shaded hues. Then, in late September, the recently fledged cygnets and their parents leave the northern coastlines of Alaska and the Northwest Territories, chased south by ice.
Flying at speeds up to 60 mph at an average altitude of 2,000 to 4,000 feet, the young swans view their first trees: the green expanse of tamarack, spruce and fir, the autumn gold of aspen, birch and alder. Here in the boreal forest, where many of North America’s ducks and warblers breed, the swans seek underwater grasses in the Northwest Territories’ large lakes and marshes, spending up to a month as the young develop and adults refuel.
October brings them to Saskatchewan and into North Dakota, to the Prairie Pothole Region so vital to breeding and migrating waterfowl. Here they meet the tundra swans arriving from the shores of Hudson Bay and Baffin Island, though some from these eastern Arctic shores will head straight south through Quebec. Ten thousand years ago, when the glaciers receded after the last ice age, millions of shallow lakes were formed here, creating these potholes with grasses and pondweeds. Tundra swans have been following this migratory pathway ever since.
Children look up from playgrounds, farmers from their harvests. Bird watchers spend long nights, telescopes pointing at the moon, hoping for familiar silhouettes. They wait each year for the haunting voices, for the few short days when the swans fly over on whistling wings, heralding the coming of winter.
Hunters wait, too. After the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 banned the hunting of the nearly extinct swans, the population recovered. In 1984, limited hunting of the eastern population was allowed. Permits are issued to hunters in the Dakotas, North Carolina and Virginia. About half of the 7,000 legal hunters will bring home a swan; illegal and subsistence hunters will bring down many more.
The swans get their first glimpses of arboreal red foliage as they fly over the oaks and maples through eastern Minnesota and into Wisconsin. Here on the upper Mississippi, the swans rest in marshes, fattening on arrowhead tubers and wild celery, and in agricultural fields, gleaning leftover corn and early winter wheat until freezing temperatures herd them southeast. Some head to southern Ontario for two to three weeks, arriving on the Bay in December. Others, in a burst of migratory enthusiasm, fly 950 miles nonstop to their winter home.
Follow the Swans
Some swans have been outfitted with numbered neck collars. You can help migratory waterfowl researchers by reporting collar sightings to the Bird Banding Lab, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, in Laurel: 800-327-band; www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbl/homepage/recwobnd.cfm or.
Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge tracked a swan by satellite telemetry and his story is on their website: www.fws.gov/northeast/easternneck/index.html
To learn more about the satellite tracking of tundra swans, visit these sites:
• The Atlantic Flyway Eastern Tundra Swan Project: a cooperative effort by Cornell University, Maryland Wildlife and Heritage Division, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, Pennsylvania Game Commission, and Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, USFWS, NY Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit, and Delta WaterfowlFoundation: www.dnr.cornell.edu/research/tundraswan/tswan.html.
• Long Point Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Fund, Port Rowan, Ontario Canada: primary research conducted by Dr. Scott Petrie. www.bsceoc.org/lpbo/swans/swans.html.
The first tundra swans arrive in early November. They’ve already been sighted in Southern Anne Arundel County and at Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary. Once here, they remain, even when the coves of the Bay freeze. Huddled in small puddles of open water, they wait for the thaw. Some will not survive.
Their serenades and ritualistic dances continue all winter as they feed on underwater grasses and mollusks, reap the remains of farm fields and feast on cracked corn tossed by benevolent neighbors.
The cygnets will not breed for three to five years. Returning as singles, they begin their winter courtship with dance and song, looking for the one they will follow for life. Once a mate is found, they will go steady for a year, defending a territory before breeding the following year.
Those surviving the Chesapeake’s snow and ice sniff the February thaw and feel the same quickening felt by their ancestors. In March, the scattered flocks of the Bay merge. In protected coves, hundreds rest quietly until a distant hooting is heard. Long fluting songs beckon the approaching swans. Facing each other, they trill, bob their heads and jab. Synchronized and ready, they prepare for their long journey north.
When final snow flurries burst and fade within minutes, when the ospreys return and the first warm zephyrs of spring drift in, the tundra swans depart, called back to the land of the caribou and polar bear, to long summer days under the midnight sun.
A native of Buzzard’s Bay in southeastern Massachusetts, Annapolitan Dotty Holcomb Doherty now watches the birds of Chesapeake Bay. Her last story for Bay Weekly was Counting Birds (vol. xi, No. 45: Nov. 9).