A surprise of swans

Every fall, nearly 100,000 tundra swans leave the arctic tundra of Alaska and Canada and migrate southeast to spend the winter in coastal marshes from

New Jersey to South Carolina. These magnificent birds are all white, stand about three feet high, and have a seven-foot wingspan.

I first saw them about 15 years ago when a family of tundra swans, two adults and three youngsters, spent the winter here in Maine on the open waters of Sebago Lake and Brandy Pond. The adults came back for several winters, each time accompanied by that year’s young. Maine is not on their usual migratory route, and we never knew why they decided to come here, but many of us enjoyed the sight of swans swimming, and standing or snoozing on the ice.

When most folks around here think of swans they may picture the mute swan, with its gracefully curved neck, and bright orange bill with a large black knob at the base of the bill, but the mute swan is not native to this continent, it is imported from Europe. North America has two native species of swans, the trumpeter swans, which are western birds of Alaska, the northern Rockies, and the Pacific Northwest, and tundra swans.

Last week, we happened to be visiting relatives in western Wisconsin when we read in the local newspaper that tundra swans migrate through that area every fall, and could be seen only a few miles from where we were. We decided to go take a look, so on a Sunday afternoon we drove down the west bank of the Mississippi River, winding around tall dramatically pointed bluffs, to a scenic overlook just south of Brownsville, Minn. The day was sunny and unusually warm for the middle of November, and wispy white clouds traced pretty patterns across the blue sky. The main channel of the river lies far from the western shore, which is lined with long, low, grass-covered islands that form part of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife & Fish Refuge. The Refuge stretches along both sides of the river as it passes through parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois, and is an important staging area in the fall for tundra swans.

We pulled into the paved scenic overlook to join a festive crowd of men, women, and families, many of whom had cameras, binoculars, or spotting scopes. All were focused on watching the nearby water and low islands, where there were about 2,000 large white tundra swans. It was easy to see their long slender necks, held straight up, and their straight black bill with a small patch of yellow at the base. The air was filled with a sort of clucking sound the swans were making. Some swans drifted on the water, others snoozed with their heads tucked under their wings, and many were feeding. They eat starchy tubers of plants such as arrowhead, digging them out of the river bottom with their large webbed feet, and then reaching down with their long necks to pull them up. When feeding, the swans’ tails aim skyward and their big black feet and legs paddle in the water to help keep them upside down. Young tundra swans were easy to spot because they were gray, and were near their parents, who remain paired throughout their lives and migrate with that year’s young. Occasionally, a swan would flap its wings, rise up part way out of the water, rush at a neighbor with a harsh cry, and then settle down again. In such a crowd, I imagine differences of opinion about who should feed where are to be expected.

A woman wearing a brown U.S. Fish & Wildlife jacket, with a large handwritten nametag that said Sue, patiently talked with people, telling them about the swans and their migration. She handed out pamphlets about the Refuge and the swans, pointed out informational display boards, and explained that over the next few weeks more swans would arrive until their numbers reached about 20,000 to 30,000 birds. After the swans have fed, rested, and fattened up for about a month they leave, climbing high enough to enter the jet stream which will carry them the final 1,500 miles of their journey all the way to the east coast. There they will spend the winter, with the largest numbers concentrating around Chesapeake Bay.

There was so much activity it was hard to know where to look first. Among the thousands of swans were hundreds of mallard ducks feasting on vegetation that was pulled up when the swans dug out the tubers. Two handsome northern pintail ducks swam calmly among the flock. Bald eagles flew overhead occasionally, and on one of the low islands eight immature eagles and one adult were perched on driftwood. Looking out over the mass of birds I thought again of the family of tundra swans who spent several winters in Maine. I wondered where they came from, what route they followed on migration, and where they are now.

Jean Preis resides in Bridgton.

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