Rite of passage: Tundras, trumpeters show up on Lake Erie shores

Tundra Swans Appearence
Four sandhill cranes showed up with a load of trumpeter and tundra swans in Northwest Ohio recently, near Oak Harbor in Ottawa County. (Photo by Steve Pollick)

Just like clockwork, large numbers of tundra swans, those sleek white fowl that trade between the High Arctic and Eastern Seaboard of the Atlantic, have arrived along western Lake Erie.

The northwest Ohio locale is a major migratory stopover point for these graceful birds as they make their way to traditional wintering grounds around Chesapeake Bay after a summer nesting season in the Arctic of Alaska and Canada.

I casually had been watching a flock of 800 or so swans – some days 1,000 or more – feeding in corn stubble along State Rt. 2 and along State Rt. 19 in western Ottawa County, north of Oak Harbor. When they decide to roust aloft, the flapping white “tornadoes” of birds are a spectacle worthy of the holiday season. It resembles the antics of snow geese flocks in the Central Flyway.

But what particularly caught my attention one recent day was a flock of about 160 swans collected along a farm lane off Route 19 hard by Turtle Creek. They were focused on small piles of corn spilled loading grain wagons. They seemed to be mainly trumpeter swans, the larger cousins of tundras once extirpated from Ohio but reintroduced some 25 years ago. Some tundras occasionally may mix in with them during migration, so a closer look was called for.. (One recent day, same field, four sandhill cranes strutted tall among about 30 or 40 trumpeters. The sandhill crane recovery and expansion is a tale for another time.)

Well, I was able to close within about 50 yards of the nearest birds, some of which were strung out for a quarter mile. With fine 8X binoculars from my car, I could confirm that most of the flock was trumpeters. I could not be sure of the more distant swans. But seeing so many trumpeter swans in one setting raised my eyebrows. Chapter and verse among fowl-watchers is that if the flock is 2, 4, 10 or so birds – trumpeters. If 30, 50, 100, or more – tundras. I just did not think that trumpeters ever collected in such numbers, or even that trumpeter numbers here in Ohio, while growing year by year, are that high.

I turned to veteran Ohio waterfowl biologist Mark Shieldcastle, currently research director at Black Swamp Bird Observatory at Oak Harbor. He spent a long career with the Ohio Division of Wildlife at Magee Marsh State Wildlife Area/Crane Creek Wildlife Research Station, retired as wetlands research director. His reply surprised me.

“The Turtle Creek swans could be either a combination or mostly trumpeters,” he began. “We have had counts as high as 150 trumpeters at one time on the refuge so they could be all (trumpeters). [We are] getting a large non-breeding population, which is probably ours plus maybe some from Ontario and/or Michigan at this time of year. Tundras are definitely using that area too as they pass over my house.” Shieldcastle lives at ground zero for swan and other waterfowl activity along the western Erie lakefront.

For more of this story, pick up a copy of the Jan. 7, 2022, print edition of Ohio Outdoor News.

Categories: Ohio – Steve Pollick

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