…this harsh sound softened and modulated by distance, and issuing from the immense void above, assumes a supernatural character of tone and impression, that excites, the first time heard, a strangely peculiar feeling.
~Dr. Sharpless, 1844, on the sound made by Tundra Swans during flight
It is a magical sound, that first haunting note of a Tundra Swan each season. This year, I heard my first call on a November trip down to Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. In subsequent trips, I have listened to it countless times, always a mesmerizing call – often a soft honking sound, reminiscent of the baying of hounds in the distance.
Other sounds include a mellow hoot, with an occasional squeak or a whistle thrown in for good measure.
And then there is the sound of the wings overhead, one of my favorite swan sounds.
If you are reasonably close, you can also hear the slapping sound made by their huge webbed feet as they they run across the water to take off.
You have to be much closer to hear the gentle, prolonged splash as these graceful birds come in for a landing.
The season of the swan is a magical time in Eastern North Carolina. Tundra Swans occur in two population groups, a western population (WP) and an eastern one (EP). The EP is estimated to be about 107,000 birds as of mid-winter, 2013 (the WP is lower at about 75,000 birds). An estimated 70-80% of the EP overwinter in North Carolina, making the refuges and fields of eastern North Carolina a critical habitat for a large portion of the Tundra Swans in the world.
When I am leading groups to view swans, we often see other groups that are hunting swans. North Carolina is one of eight states that allow swan hunting. Swan meat is supposedly good to eat, and Dr. Sharpless commented that if less than six years old swans are very tender and delicious eating. Federal rules dictate that states limit the number of permits issued and generally limit the annual harvest to one bird per permittee. In our state, 5000 permits are issued each winter, by far the most of any other state. In a typical winter, about half result in a kill. A quick check online revealed prices of about $400 to $450 per hunter per day for a swan hunt in eastern NC, which obviously brings income into this area. And, of course, there is the income brought in by ecotourism – bird watchers, wildlife watchers, and others that just want to get out and enjoy the sights and sounds of the winter wildlife.
Our group was interviewed this past weekend by a graduate student looking at possible economic impacts to the region due to the presence of large numbers of swans each winter. I know that the hotel we stay at in Plymouth is often crowded on weekends with a combination of swan hunters and swan watchers, so there must be a considerable impact on local economies to the presence of so many wintering birds in this region.
Tundra Swans are often seen in family groups on the wintering grounds. Adults are all white (although they sometimes have rust-colored stains on their head and upper necks from the ferrous minerals in the soils where they feed). Immature birds are dirty white or grayish, especially on the head and neck, and often have a pinkish bill. These juveniles will be all white by the time they come back next winter.
On an earlier trip this year we observed a swan sporting a different color – a neck collar similar to the ones I had assisted the refuge in putting on birds they banded several years ago. This one also had what appeared to be a microwave transmitter on the collar which would have provided even more information on the movements of this particular bird, T311. The advantage of neck collars is that observers can report the whereabouts of a collared bird using just binoculars or a spotting scope, whereas to get data from the traditional leg bands requires that the bird be in hand, usually as the result of being shot in a hunt. After turning in the observation of T311 to a USFWS biologist in the region, the preliminary information indicates that this number series corresponds to birds that were collared on their nesting grounds on the North Slope of Alaska in 2006. I hope to get more definitive information on this bird soon.
In between groups on a recent trip, I spent some quality time observing swans in one of the impoundments at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. This area has contained many swans this winter and they seem to tolerate cars stopping to observe and photograph them.
With more than 25,000 feathers on a swan’s body, it makes sense that these birds spend a lot of time each day preening. One of my favorite scenes is when the shadow of one bird is cast upon the body of another bird.
After a good bout of preening, a swan will often raise up and flap its wings a couple of times as if to get all those feathers in working order again. Late afternoon is a great time to watch and photograph swans as they are relaxed and the low angle light starts getting that golden hue that makes these majestic birds even more beautiful.
The flight of Tundra Swans is a magical thing to witness. Their long necks and strong wing beats on a wing span of almost 6 feet gives them an appearance of grace and power. Average flight speeds are in the neighborhood of 30 mph. This serves them well on their incredibly long migrations between their breeding grounds on the tundra of western Canada and Alaska to their wintering grounds here in North Carolina, a distance of over 3500 miles. Satellite tracking has shown that although they could fly that distance in a little over 100 hours straight, it actually takes much longer since they use so-called staging areas along the route as they migrate to feed and rest. The spring migration is usually longer than the fall one, lasting about 100 days. In a typical year, Tundra Swans spend about 20% of the year on the wintering grounds, 29% on the breeding grounds, and the rest in migration on the staging areas (with spring migration lasting longer than fall). This shows how important it is to identify and protect all components of a migratory bird’s habitats throughout its annual cycle.
In a little over a month, the Tundra Swans and most of the other waterfowl will be headed north to their breeding grounds. The refuges in eastern North Carolina will seem silent and empty, although they are really anything but, since a new set of migrants will arrive to breed and raise their young along with all of our resident wildlife. But I will still look forward to next year, when there is a chill in the air and a sound I love that will signal the beginning of a new season of the swan.