Thousands of snow geese rustled out on the open water of the refuge. Amidst the raft of snow geese, small groups of tundra swans (Cygnus columbianis) raised their elegant long necks above the crowd. These swans were the special object of our viewing this cold January morning, and we weren’t going to be disappointed.
Shortly after sunrise, the snow geese lifted off in one massive swirl. The simultaneous liftoff of thousands of geese sounded like a cannon blast. And then they were gone, scattering across the fields of the Eastern Shore to search for food. The even more numerous Canada geese on the refuge would be following them soon, and so would the swans.
The magnificent warmup act was finishing, but we still had some time with our swans, which take a somewhat more leisurely pace in getting the day started.
The rising sun brought the scene into sharper focus. I had my binoculars fixed on a pair of tundra swans floating in the knee-deep water and facing one another. This might be more than an accidental moment of convergence. Tundra swans mate for life. The sexes look alike, so I had no visual clue to support my inference. Regardless of their relationship, the pair provided an arresting tableau of these elegant visitors.
I love the simplicity of the tundra swan. Its plumage is pure white. The complex coloring of warblers and the intricate designs of many species have their own appeals, but the pure white feathering of the tundra swan is a thing to behold. And there is a lot to behold. Tundra swans often have wingspans of more than 6 feet and stand 4 feet tall or higher.
The pair of swans drifted over to a shallow spot and their sturdy black legs and feet carried them on to a mudflat. As we could see through our binoculars, both of these birds had a yellow spot on the bill weeping down from each eye. The lower mandible has a small line of yellow along the cutting edge, but that feature is not easily visible in the field. Not all tundra swans have the visible yellow spot on the black bill, but most of the North American birds do. In Eurasia, the Bewick’s swan is a separate population of the tundra swan. Although it is the same species, this population has extensive yellow along the bill.
There are only four species of swans in North America. The whooper swan is a Eurasian bird that appears in Alaska’s far western Aleutian Islands. The huge trumpeter swan with its 80-inch wingspan is more common, but rarely visits the Eastern seaboard. The mute swan is a nonnative, invasive species that was imported from Europe. It has a curved neck and an orange bill with a black knob. The only native swan common to the Chesapeake is the tundra swan, with its regally straight long white neck and black bill.
Tundra swans were formerly known as “whistling” swans because of the noise their wings made while in flight. As their name indicates, tundra swans spend the breeding season in the Arctic tundra of northern North America. As we eyed the swans on the Eastern Shore, their breeding lands were enveloped in near-24 hour darkness, snow-covered and freezing cold with bitter winds.
In a few months, the very long days and relatively warm temperatures would transform that natal landscape into an ideal habitat of grasses and wildflowers. Ponds full of freshly melted snow will dot the landscape. It is a starkly beautiful region for the swans to raise their young, which are called cygnets.
By October, tundra swans depart the Arctic for relatively warmer winter regions. Strangely enough, the swans that winter on the Great Salt Lake and West Coast start out as though they are making straight for the Chesapeake. Half-way through the trip, they stop at the Great Lakes. After staging there, instead of continuing down to the Chesapeake, they turn sharply and head to the West. Ornithologists don’t understand this back-tracking behavior.
The birds we were watching are part of a huge group that ends up along the Eastern seaboard of the United States. They stop first in the Dakotas and Minnesota. After resting and refueling themselves for the next leg of their migration, they head down to the Chesapeake and other coastal bays.
Thousands of tundra swans winter in the Chesapeake wetlands complex, which is centered on the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
As I focused in, one of the swans leapt into the air, wings flapping strongly, neck straight and achingly white. Time had stopped and the cold was temporarily forgotten. Every complication of life fell away. I was transfixed by the astounding beauty of an elegant black and white bird against a crystalline sky.
Life’s greatest pleasures are sometimes revealed by their utter simplicity.