Like clockwork, tundra swans make their annual return to Ohio

Tundra Swans (2)

Several days ago, I cruised the western Lake Erie lakeshore zone in a seasonal search of old friends – flocks of migrating tundra swans – and saw not a one.

I chalked it up to sunny bluebird weather, but wondered whether I had missed the annual mystical fall flights of these long-distance migrants. But today, just four days later, on a strong northwest wind and falling temperatures, it “felt” like winter for sure. It would drop to 18 degrees overnight.

Like clockwork, the tundras – once called whistling swans for their melodic bugling calls aloft  – showed up in lakeshore-zone chopped cornfields. Easily 200 of them were clustered into a single chopped corn patch off State Rt. 19, north of Oak Harbor in western Ottawa County, the same field that attracted them en masse a year ago. Several miles north, in a harvested cornfield not far from the mouth of Turtle Creek, another 50 or so were resting and feeding.

The great swan migration is on! At last. I had had a hint of it a week prior, when a flock of perhaps 40 tundras passed overhead, whistling to one another distinctively, on a breezy, cloudy, coolish Sunday afternoon at my home in western Sandusky County. But then the winds and weather turned mild next day and thereafter, nothing.

These great white birds just now are down from the Arctic nesting and summering grounds. They ever are a sight with their deep, flowing wingbeats and their repetitive, melodic,  high-pitched calls. I often wonder where, exactly, have these specific birds come from, and where were they bound? 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 each autumn pass through the Buckeye State, drafting down on the coming winter. Tundra swans are large 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.

Tundras begin 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 end up at Chesapeake Bay. 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.

The fabled early-American explorers Lewis and Clark are credited with first describing tundra swan during their landmark 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 till 1982, when ornithologists renamed the breed for their Arctic nesting grounds.

Tundra swans may be confused to untrained eyes with 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 5-1/2 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 a 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 and South Dakota and the eastern half of Montana in the Central Flyway, and Virginia and North Carolina on the eastern seaboard. I am content to enjoy them through the twin barrels of binoculars rather than over the bead of the twin barrels of my side-by-side 12-gauge. We have more than enough Canada geese to shoot. These great white birds are fine here, just for the looking, and wondering.

Categories: Ohio – Steve Pollick

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