First in Flight

Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?

~Frida Kahlo

I think I can answer that after spending an afternoon watching my favorite winter resident, the tundra swans, at the Pungo Unit this past weekend. It turns out, if you are one of North America’s largest waterfowl (weighing in at 18-20 pounds), you need your feet in order to get airborne. I arrived late morning when things tend to be a bit slow in terms of wildlife, spent some time chatting with three groups of friends down for the holiday weekend, and then settled in for some wildlife watching at my favorite impoundment (Marsh A). Cloudy skies soon gave way to bright blue and sunny conditions, and the several hundred swans at Marsh A were doing what they do best – preening, some feeding, squabbling with nearby groups, and filing the air with their peaceful calls. As the afternoon wore on, more and more swans started taking flight, headed out to nearby fields for their last meal of the day before retiring back to the safety of the water. As they did so, another sound echoed across the water – the slapping of their huge webbed feet and splashes as they run across the water flapping their nearly 6-foot wingspan to gain lift. Their approach to the runway is usually preceded by head-bobbing and calls, slow at first, and then more intense. I wonder if this is a signal to their family (they tend to stay together as family units on the wintering grounds) that we are about to leave? Maybe it also serves as a warning to birds along the potential runway to look out, ’cause we are headed your way. They almost always take off into the wind which helps give their huge wings a needed boost. I spent a couple of hours sitting with these magnificent birds, watching, listening, and admiring these long-distance travelers. I also practiced swinging the big lens along my window bean bag as the swans slapped the water to take off. It was a good way to spend an afternoon.

Juvenile tundra swan taking off

Juvenile tundra swan running across the water to take flight (click photos to enlarge)

Pair of swans taking off

A pair of adult swans (all white, no grayish head and neck) about to be airborne

Pair of juvenile swans taking off

It must be tough being third and fourth in the take-off line with all that muddy water being kicked up in your face by your parents

Swan running to take off

It can be tough to isolate one bird as it takes off with so many on the water

lift off

Swans typically run across the water surface 50 to 100 feet before lifting off

swan flapping wings

The late afternoon light filled the marsh and caused the swans to almost glow with elegance

As was the case last week, I heard the snow geese lift off the lake (you can’t see the lake from this location) at about 4:30 p.m. I soon saw a huge flock headed south, presumably to the fields near the front entrance to the refuge. So, a few more minutes with the swans, and then I headed out.

snow geese landing

By the time i got to the front fields, most of the snow geese were already on the ground, mixing in with a large flock of swans

Snow geese landing with swans in field

A jet flew over, startling the snow geese, and causing them to blast off in a whir of black and white

Snow geese coming into a field

The energy balance of these birds baffles me, as they tend to circle several times after each blast off before returning to the ground to feed

Swans at sunset

As the sun set, I moved to the far side of the field to look for bears and to enjoy the sight of thousands of birds silhouetted against the orange sky, headed back to the lake

This was day one of a three day wandering among wildlife refuges along our coast. More on some other sights and sounds in the next post.



11 thoughts on “First in Flight

  1. The swans are my perennial favorite at the refuge. I imagined myself there as I read the account of your day. It doesn’t get much better than that, I don’t think!! The snow geese are always so fascinating blasting off and flying in undulating formation in the sky. It’s wonderful that we have these refuges to visit and see the wonders of nature unfolding.

  2. Have I told you how glad I am that you are old and retired “again”? I really miss NC this time of year except for the cold weather. My heart is happy when I see the Swans and Snow geese. Thank you for sharing your beautiful photos and words . Loved the bear blog too.

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