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This Week’s Creature Feature: Tundra Swans Settle In

Winter visitors from the far north

      As the days get short and cold, flocks of huge white birds arrive in Chesapeake Bay to spend the winter. They seem to come all at the same time and at night.
     When they fly, their wings make a high-pitched sound that caused Meriweather Lewis to name them whistling swans. Their wings do whistle, but they also make a loud honk when talking to each other, and they are quite loud as they slap the water when taking off. Tundra swans have an almost five-and-a-half-foot wingspan and weigh up to 21 pounds, so they need a running start to fly.
     Feeding, they are dippers, eating underwater algae, grasses and clams by leaning forward and putting their heads straight down and their tails up into the air. So it’s easy to see they have black feet and legs.
     Their bills are also black but have a little yellow at the edges and a slight dip near the nostrils. In contrast, the rarer trumpeter swan has an all-black bill that comes straight down from the forehead.
     Tundra swans mate for life, pairing up a year before they start nesting. Around here in the winter, they stay in family groups of four. In some areas, the family groups coalesce into a larger flock.
     The birds calmly spend the winter here, honking and calling and feeding. They are commonly found along Thomas Point, Herring Bay, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge.
     In the early spring, they suddenly take off together late in the evening and start the 3,000-plus-mile journey to spread out over the Arctic tundra to nest.