Chesapeake Outdoors

Vol. 9, No. 1
Jan. 4-10, 2001
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In Winter's Grip

I am sure that to some observers, it was a dichotomous act, one fraught with irony and wholly incongruous with their often misguided notion of hunters - those callous predators who take game without regard for the impact of their sport. Perhaps that may be true of a few hunters, but the ones I know are conservationists first, people who derive both pleasure and sustenance from our natural resources.

Amidst the cold snap gripping our Chesapeake like a steel vise, two hunters launched a volley of pellets into a small flock of mallards that flew overhead, dropping one drake dead onto the frozen pond. Later, after the remaining ducks flew off, the hunters' attention was drawn to the far end of the irrigation pond, a couple hundred yards away, where a large single bird squatted on the ice. It was a curious sight considering the shotgun blasts shook the sky - and should have sent the bird sky-bound.

"Kind of looks like a young snow goose," I guessed.

"No, I think it's a young swan," replied Kevin Colbeck, whose bird identification skills proved more accurate.

Without further discussion, we walked through the open water created the previous evening by the roosting snow geese. Earlier, before legal shooting time when we were setting out decoys, we startled perhaps a hundred of the snows and several dozen ducks from their nightly roost. The thick Arctic air quickly closed in around the open water. When that section closed, we crashed through the skim ice, which led to still thicker ice. About 10 yards from the edge, the cygnet lay on the plate ice as if it were shackled, and once Kevin hoisted himself up on the ice, he discovered that the bird was frozen into the icepack.

Even though it was an immature bird (its light gray plumage had yet to molt to the distinctive all white characteristic of an adult) it was roughly full grown, body-wise. The big cygnet reared its head and hissed at us, but it wasn't much of a threat in its present state.

As Kevin gently held its massive wings (an adult tundra swan's wingspan can reach seven feet) and pulled its body upward, I quickly used my knife to carve it free from the stranglehold of ice. Although clearly exhausted, once it was free it slowly raised itself up, then looked around as if to figure out its next move. Still wary of its liberators, it walked to the open water and paddled toward the shore, pausing briefly to take a drink of water. And there it stayed for the rest of the morning, well away from our decoys and the hunt, which ended soon after.

Certainly the harsh winter that has paralyzed cities and downed power lines across the country has impacted the natural world as well, particularly the young animals experiencing their first winter. But how did this beautiful migratory waterfowl, born on the Arctic tundra, get stuck in the ice? I have seen and heard about young herons in their first winter taken by surprise during cold snaps and getting locked in, but it is rare. So I called Bill Harvey, a wildlife biologist with Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, and relayed the story.

"That is interesting. The harsh cold snaps, particularly when accompanied by a strong wind, stress young birds more than adults," Harvey explained. "Immature birds have less fat and energy reserves, and the cold weather consumes them at a faster rate. Then, the birds become more susceptible to disease."

It made good sense, but it still wasn't clear how that particular swan became frozen in ice. As we drove down the dirt road away from the pond, amazingly a fox bounded across the snow-dusted field toward the pond, perhaps making the fate of that cygnet that much more uncertain. The scene also reaffirmed the truth that the natural order remains chaotically constant.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly