Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

November 12, 2008

The Sound of the North Wind

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:23 pm

   Listen for just a moment (The North Winds). Did you hear it over the earthbound sounds of blackbirds and robins? If not, listen again and focus your ear on something in the high background. It is the haunting sound of the North Wind coming down to rest for the winter. That cooing sound, barely audible but resonating, is the call of the Tundra Swan (see the responsible flock above). These northern visitors are the very essence of the great white north. Their arrival is a clarion call that the gentle part of autumn has past and the season will begin to bear some teeth.

  Tundra Swans migrate south to the “balmier” conditions of the lower 48 and arrive here by early November. Reared on the North slopes of Alaska, they retreat for the winter to the Great Lakes region and Chesapeake Bay. Several thousand annually seek refuge on the choppy waters of the Detroit River mouth and sustain themselves on the rich beds of Water Celery.

  Tundras are easy to identify (see here a small flock riding the waves offshore of Lake Erie Metropark). Large white birds with solid black beaks (each having a small yellow dot before the eye), erect positioning of the neck, and endowed with the gift of song, there are few birds to compare or confuse them with. The immature birds are sooty gray and tend to have pinkish bills, but are readily identified by their adult companions.  Trumpeter Swans are similar, but as of yet they are very rare members of our local flock. No, about the only bird that can fool the distant observer are the much larger Mute Swans.

  Mutes are non-migratory swans that hang about all year. They are naturalized European immigrants that form 100% of our summer swan population. From November through March, however, they are joined by their graceful and much more welcome northern kin.  The two rarely mix, as if there is some genetic pride that separates the two like oil from water. I’d assign the Tundras to the water role since they are, like the foamy waves, an integral part of the gray wind-lashed November aquaticscape. The Mutes are the oily ill fitting ones.

  Nonetheless, the Mutes do occasionally join in with the Tundras and this allows us to see a direct comparison (see here). Mute Swans have bright orange bills topped with a black knobs. They tend to hold their necks in a curved “ceramic” position and fluff their back feathers up with an aristocratic flair that betrays a hint of European snobbery. Mutes, despite their names, do manage an occasional grunt – a sound more like a painfully stifled sneeze than a dignified bird call.  About the only time they make a loud noise is through the generation of sound though their beating wings (listen here as a group of five pass by: Mute Swan Wingbeats ).

  The wind whistles through the primaries of the Tundra Swans as well, but it is their ghostly call that carries for miles on even the gentlest of breezes. Their breathy sound mixes so well with the wind because it is, as I have already stated, made out of the same ethereal stuff as the North Wind itself.

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