A flock of 17 trumpeter swans followed an ultralight aircraft 330 miles from New York to Maryland's Eastern Shore in December, re-establishing what biologists hope will become a permanent migratory route for the continent's largest waterfowl.
Their arrival at the Horsehead Wetlands Center near Grasonville on Dec. 15 capped an 11-day migration. The center, operated by the Waterfowl Trust of North America, will become the winter home for the re-established population.
The flight culminated a project that began more than a year ago when Environmental Studies at Airlie, a nonprofit scientific organization, hatched and reared a group of trumpeters as part of an experiment to see if they could be trained to fly behind an ultralight, a technique used successfully with Canada geese and popularized in the movie, "Fly Away Home."
Because the swans were wiped out in this region during colonial times, efforts to reintroduce a migratory population hinged on the birds being able to "learn" a migration route by following an ultralight.
Last fall, the experiment proved to be successful when three swans were led by ultralight from Airlie, VA, to the Eastern Shore. All three initiated a return migration on their own this spring.
With that success, the Airlie biologists this year raised another group in Genessee County, NY - historically a breeding ground for trumpeters, which is to become the summer home for the new population. This fall, those birds learned their migration route behind the ultralight. Biologists hope the swans will return to New York on their own next spring, establishing a permanent migration route, although biologists will continue their project for at least another year.
Trumpeter swans can weigh up to 30 pounds, have an 8-foot wingspan and can stand 4-5 feet tall. They have a long, convoluted trachea that produces their resonant trumpeting sound. Once, nearly 100,000 trumpeters wintered in the Bay area. They were hunted nearly to extinction during colonial days, mainly for their feathers. Only 19,000 of the birds remain in the continent today, mainly in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
"The trustees, staff and volunteers of the Waterfowl Trust of North America are delighted to welcome the trumpeters' return to the Chesapeake after nearly 200 years of absence, and look forward to working with the Airlie team toward their migratory reintroduction," said Edward Delaney, the trust's executive director.
The project is orchestrated by Environmental Studies with cooperation from the waterfowl trust, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, Operation Migration, and the Council of Chiefs for the Tonawanda Band of Senecas.