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Tundra Swans Keep Their Annual Appointment

They’ll keep us company till the osprey return

Right on time, tundra swans
have dropped from the skies over Chesapeake Country like giant snowflakes. They are big birds, weighing 20 pounds or so in maturity with a six-foot wingspan.
    About December 1, perhaps I heard their raucous cries cutting through the dark of night. Four or five days later on Fairhaven pond, I saw a pair of white birds so big that they couldn’t have been gulls. December 10 the evidence was incontrovertible: a pair flapping over the pond, a couple pair more paddling through the water, skirting the skin of ice.
    That’s modern swan time; used to be they’d arrive reliably for Veterans Day, just as the osprey arrive reliably for St. Patrick’s Day.
    Tundra swans are creatures of cold weather, but the freeze in their Canadian nesting grounds sends them south in search of food. They come as families, parents and a cygnet or two, only four months old and making this two-month flight of thousands of miles from above the Arctic Circle. The big birds fly at about 50mph; they follow the freeze south through Canada, feeling along the way.
    The Chesapeake is a historic wintering spot, and they’ll stay with us from now until earliest spring. So you’ve lots of opportunity to meet them.
    See their loose Vs passing overhead, hear their bark and spy the huge birds close up as small flocks float on Bay marsh ponds and coves, long necks stretched to the muddy bottoms to harvest grasses, clams and other small mollusks. Long-distance flying is hard, hungry work, so it may take a while before those elegant, long necks rise to show you the species-signature black beak.