Tundra swan flocks light up the Ohio sky

(Photo courtesy of Ducks Unlimited)

The deep, warbling, yodeling calls reach the ears long before the sight of the big white birds reach the eyes.

Tundra swans.

The great continent-trotting waterfowl are starting northbound migrations already, heading north through Ohio on the transitioning weather from Chesapeake Bay and the Carolinas to their summer nesting grounds in the High Arctic of Canada and Alaska.

But while such is the chapter and verse of birding field guides, know that hundreds and hundreds of these spectacular white wildfowl have stayed right here – in northern Ohio along the Lake Erie shore zone between Cleveland and Toledo – all winter. They never finished the traditional southbound autumn migration to the Southeast.

Time was that locally, winter tundra swans – as in back in the day when they were called “whistling swans” after their melodic calls – would have been big news along the Erie south shore. In fact, it still is big news, but in a different way.

“Their wintering numbers have indeed increased,” says Jim McCormac, the widely- and well-known Ohio naturalist, birder, blogger (Birds and Biodiversity), and author of the Birds of Ohio field guide.

“A record of a flock of 130 in the western marshes in winter 1982-83 was big news and atypical,” he said. “Normally, none to only a few would try to stick out winter. They started to increase and become more regular winterers in the 1990s … I guess it’s because they can now survive the winters up there for whatever reasons, and thus cut off the leg of the journey to the Chesapeake Bay region.

“The East Coast wintering birds are starting to pass through now. I was at several places along the lake from Cleveland to Lorain (in late February) and saw three flocks totaling about 300 birds, high aloft and heading west.”

The species has two North American populations. The western one, nesting in Alaska and the Canadian Yukon, is about 65,000 birds strong and winters along the U.S. West Coast. Another 117,000 tundras, the eastern population, nest in the eastern Arctic winters along the East Coast, centered at the Chesapeake but some as far south as the Carolinas and ever Florida.

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 on the Chesapeake may mean a flight of 2,500 miles.

Dave Sherman, who is the wetlands habitat coordinator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife at Crane Creek Research Station near Oak Harbor, notes thus:

“The tundras (and Ohio’s trumpeter swans) generally stay in an area until ice conditions push them south. Migration is extremely costly, especially for a 20-pound bird, so they generally only migrate when the present conditions force them to move on. Here on the Lake Erie coast, they have plenty of food (waste grain) and open water (at least this winter), so they are going to hang here as long as they can.

“The weather this year has been quite variable with five to 10 days of sub-freezing followed by three to five days of above-normal temps, so the swans have been able to find food and open water consistently. This is not a new phenomenon since the southern states for years have been complaining that the northern states short-stop waterfowl and geese.

“We have also seen this type of behavior with sandhill cranes that were marked with satellite transmitters. We had several cranes that never migrated even when there was sub-freezing temps and two feet snow for more than two weeks.  I am not sure why they didn’t pull out and how they survived, but somehow they made it through. I am also sure you have seen the scattered great blue herons gathered around an open hole in the ice every winter that decide it’s not worth the flight south. I venture that most winters they survive, but when it really gets nasty like it did three to four years ago, we end up finding quite a few dead birds on the ice that chose poorly.

“What drives this behavior and whether it’s due to an ever-changing climate overall, I cannot say. I do believe that present conditions where the birds are located largely dictate when and if they decide to migrate. What causes those present conditions is more of a meteorologist question, I reckon.”

Tundra swans are very similar in color to Ohio’s reintroduced trumpeter swans, which are bigger still. Tundra swans themselves are huge waterfowl, measuring nearly 4½ feet long with a wingspan of nearly 7 feet. Males, slightly larger than females, can tips 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.

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 to hundreds, whereas trumpeter flocks are a relatively small, usually just a “handful.”

The 2017 trumpeter survey indicated a total population of 375, so it likely is well above 400 by now, Sherman said.

Swans may spend some days or longer – or a winter – 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.

Lewis and Clark were credited with first describing tundra swans 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.

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

Categories: Ohio – Steve Pollick

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