Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 25, 2009

Swanee River

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:52 pm

I just can’t let this winter pass without some kind of comment involving Tundra Swans. I’ve called your attention to these big beautiful birds before, but they merit all the attention they can get. The swans came in with the autumn wind, have wintered here on the Lower Detroit River, and are now reaching the end of their stay. The call of the returning Red-wing Blackbirds, now echoing over the frozen marshes,  are a sure sign that the Tundras will soon be packing.

Most of the eastern population of Tundra Swans pass over our region and winter along the east coat from  Chesapeake Bay to the Carolinas.  Several thousand individuals annually decide to stick to the celery beds available at the Detroit River mouth rather than move on to the coast. As long as there is open water, they can feed and maintain appearances. Rough winters can tax the local migrants, and this year several young birds have succumbed to starvation – a “normal” but tragic occurrence that reminds us the frailty of life.

There is no more stunning scene than an early morning sunrise on a crispy winter day on the Detroit. The relatively warmer waters of the river give off a rising steam that envelops and surrounds the small groups of Tundras on the water (see photo above). These birds sleep on the water, so the sunrise is a call for them to stir and begin the necessary activities of the day. The sight of their pale forms outlined in the fog combined with the auditory experience provided by a chorus of cooing calls, creates for some hauntingly beautiful  scenes. Watch this movie sequence here and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about.

A typical day in the life of a winter Tundra Swan involves a wake-up bath, a bit of serenading and trumpeting along with fellow swans, some tip-up feeding on the celery beds, and an inland flight southwest to the corn fields of northern Monroe county. They are joined by other waterfowl, such as mallards, black ducks, and Canada Geese, who also take advantage of the waste grain found in these fields.  Oddly enough, the big white birds look perfectly natural in this terrestrial setting because it closely resembles their  summer tundra environs.

Late afternoon signals the return of the field foraging flocks back to the river. They arrive in small flocks of a five  or ten birds and each appearance stirs the birds already on the water to begin calling. The newcomers respond in kind, and the river once again becomes a noisy place.  By sunset, the birds are gathered together and, with heads tucked deep within the folds of their back feathers, they drift into blissful sleep.

Now that I’ve used the phrases “hauntingly beautiful” and “blissful sleep” in the same column, I can see it’s time to come back down to earth and drive a point home.  Tundra Swans, you see, are not “our” birds by any stretch of the imagination. They spend half of their time in other far places. Ours is a crucial wintering site, but every spot along their northward trek is equally as important.

When the birds take off from here, they will head northwest – a flight that will take them over Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and finally to the N.W. Territories or the Nunavut Territories of the high Canadian Arctic. They will nest on the open tundra and retrace the route the following fall.

Much of the breeding population overlaps with the territories of such dignitaries as Polar Bears and their tiny white sidekicks the Arctic Foxes. Churchill, on James Bay, Canada is one such spot where all three creatures can be seen in one view.

As ambassadors of this top of the world setting, the Tundra Swans can be considered as carrier pigeons delivering a message of world interdependence.  What happens to the tundra and arctic habitat has a direct effect on our regional lifeforms down here in the lower latitudes. You could say that all nature is global – in fact, I will say it: “All nature is global”. You can tell ’em that a big bird told ya.

1 Comment »

  1. Wow–you’ve turned a pun into an ear worm. Thanks a lot!

    Comment by Monica — February 27, 2009 @ 10:17 am

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