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This Week’s Creature Feature: Swansdown

Tundra swans return

     “The first tundra swans of the season have arrived on Fairhaven pond.” Jimbo Degonia‎ posted the news on Bay Weekly’s Facebook page Tuesday, November 21, documenting their arrival with this photo. That’s early for birds usually seen after the first of December.
     A week later I saw a pod of three of the snow-white birds on the same pond, and more since.
     We are not alone in welcoming the swans. They are settling for the winter in all reaches of the Chesapeake.
     Swanfall is Bay chronicler Tom Horton’s word for this moment in time, coined for his 1991 book with photographer David Harp: Journey of the Tundra Swans. “The birds seem almost to drop from the sky,” he writes.
     They do drop upon us, suddenly here. Sometime in March, they will leave us. Their going is never quite such a surprise for they talk about it for days before the big pick up, gathering flocks barking like dogs. They leave from here, familiar after four months feeding and basking in our temperate clime.
     After eight months’ absence, their arrival out of nowhere is always a surprise. Like the snow, they come from the frozen north, big white flakes falling from the sky.
     Swansdown, I call it, after the soft white powdery cake flour of the same name.
     Indeed, there’s a lot of air, feathers and down about a swan before you get down to flesh and bone, all eight to 24 pounds of it. Still, they are big birds, four to five feet long with 66-inch wingspans. Unlike ducks, which could, from a distance, be any old mallard or a rare visitor, tundra swans are unmistakable. Size, neck length and color — even to their all-black bills and feet — give them away. So do their vocalizations, loud calls of hoonk or woo-hoo. 
     Not as gainly as snow is the feet-first landing that has them walking splashily on the water for some distance, wings akimbo, before settling into grace. Takeoff requires effort too, as they run across the water before lifting off on powerful whistling wings. From which comes the nickname whistling swan.
     These annual arctic visitors and their grayscale cygnets need a clean Bay, full of grasses and clams, to make their 4,000-mile trip worthwhile. That’s our job.