Tundra swans overhead a sight, sound to behold

(Photo courtesy of Ducks Unlimited)

I was just leaving my rural Sandusky County homestead one recent morning when a sound and sight in the December gray overhead gave me pause: Two classic V-flocks of tundra swans, perhaps 50 birds total, were beating their way upwind into the teeth of a northeast wind.

The great white birds, down from the Arctic, always are a sight with their deep, flowing wingbeats and their repetitive calls, sometimes described as high-pitched, smooth bugling. I often wonder where these specific birds come from exactly, and where they will go for the winter. Northern Ohio’s open “big waters” and sprawling flat fields of corn stubble “tundra” are attractive rest-and-refuel stopovers sites.

Thousands of tundra swans are passing through the Buckeye State currently. A survey crew I was with recently spied more than 1,000 of them recently in just a couple fields of corn stubble not far from western Lake Erie in Ottawa County. Hundreds of others also have been reported at Killdeer Plains State Wildlife Area and vicinity in north-central Ohio’s Wyandot County.

Tundra swans are huge waterfowl, measuring nearly 4½ feet long with a wingspan of nearly 7 feet. Males, slightly larger than females, can tip the scales at up to 23 pounds. Compare that to the now-familiar bald eagle, which averages about 2½ feet long and weighs about 10 pounds but with a similar wingspan.

The swans passing through Ohio now are on a daunting annual autumn journey, from nesting grounds in the sub-Arctic and Arctic to wintering grounds on the eastern seaboard from New Jersey to the Carolinas. Those specifically migrating through Ohio mostly are headed to Chesapeake Bay region. The nearest nesting grounds to Ohio are some 1,100 miles to our north, with others as far as 2,000 miles north. So, a one-way trip from nesting to wintering grounds may mean a flight of 2,500 miles.

A side note: Swans may spend some days or longer in a given locale, trading back and forth between water and feeding field. Some folks mistakenly think that when they see swans flying north, that they are confused and headed in the wrong direction – that is, not south. Actually, they simply may be seeking new fields in which to glean, or heading to water to rest. Eventually, weather and season will move them south for the duration of winter.

Lewis and Clark were credited with first describing tundra swan during their heroic western expedition of 1804-06. Inspired by the distinctive hum of the giant fowls’ wings in flight, they named them “whistling swans,” a common term that stuck until 1982, when ornithologists renamed them for their Arctic breeding grounds.

Tundra swans are very similar to trumpeter swans, which have been reintroduced into many Great Lakes states, including Ohio. But trumpeters are much larger, easily told when seen side by side but hard to distinguish at a distance. Trumpeters may stretch to 5½ feet long, wings spanning as much as 8 feet, with weights to 30 pounds. Because of the more ponderous size, they also are slower in flight. Also, tundra swans tend to raft and feed and migrate in relatively large flocks, dozens or scores to hundreds, whereas trumpeter flocks are relatively small, usually just a handful.

Eight states currently allow limited hunting for tundra swans, including Alaska, Montana, Nevada, and Utah in the Pacific Flyway, North Dakota and South Dakota and the eastern half of Montana in the Central Flyway, and Virginia and North Carolina on the eastern seaboard.

Me, I am quite content to watch these exotic high-flying vagabonds through the twin barrels of binoculars rather than over the bead of the twin barrels of my shotgun. We have more than enough Canada geese to shoot in the fowling department.

Categories: Ohio – Steve Pollick

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