Symbols of Wilderness

Photo by Charles Lister

January 14, 2020

By Alexa Reed, Friends Intern

Eastern Neck’s tundra swans have, once again, made their way back to the island on their annual pilgrimage. These remarkable birds have traveled a distance of nearly 3,500 miles by the time they reach Maryland’s Eastern Shore. After leaving their summer breeding grounds near the Arctic Circle in mid-autumn, migrating tundra swans make only two stops during their journey. Flocks, which consist of 100 or more birds, make their first stop along in Canada’s southern provinces near the border. From there, the flock flies to the Great Lakes and rests there in order to prepare for the final leg of the journey. These powerful birds can fly up to 50 miles per hour and have wingspans averaging six feet, which is what enables them to accomplish their remarkable voyage.

A population of 300 to 400 tundra swans overwinter every year at Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge! These 20-pound birds can typically be seen on the waters of the northern half of the refuge near Bogle’s Wharf, Frying Pan Cove and Tubby Cove. Adult tundra swans can be identified by their large white bodies, long necks, and mostly black bills, while juveniles – who typically remain with their parents through their first winter – are more of a dusky grey-brown color and have a touch of pink on their bills. The weekly waterfowl survey of December 23rd, 2019 tallied 239 tundra swans around Eastern Neck Island. While tundra swans often feed on leftover agricultural crops, Eastern Neck’s tundra swans can mostly be seen feeding on sub-aquatic vegetation and mollusks. They seem to particularly like clams.

Climate change may drastically reshape the range of the tundra swans. In the most extreme climate scenario, overwintering populations will gain additional ranges along the northeast coastline and in the Pacific Northwest. There is a possibility that some range will be lost along the Eastern Shore. Long-time residents of the Eastern Shore have already noticed some effects including changing migration patterns and lower overwintering populations. Fluctuations in populations can also be attributed to factors such as habitat loss and change due to oil and gas drilling, especially in the arctic, and disease; tundra swan deaths in the Chesapeake Bay may be caused by a nematode worm that infects the heart muscle. There are, however, few natural predators for these birds, and they are not considered endangered. Their overall population size has remained stable, despite their climate vulnerability. In fact, population counts for the tundra swans in the United States Christmas Bird Count were recorded at an all-time high with nearly 29,000 overwintering in North Carolina. Similarly, tundra swans were ranked the 9th most abundant species in the 2018-2019 Canadian Christmas Bird Count.

For long-time Eastern Shore resident, Walter Ellison, the tundra swans remain unique creatures. In describing what makes these birds special, Walter immediately cited their vocals. Tundra swans make a variety of bugling calls, which are easily recognizable and are a part of the reason this species is often referred to as whistling swans. In fact, the first written description of the tundra swan was made by Lewis and Clark during their exploration of the West, where Meriwether Lewis first coined their nickname as whistling swans. Flocks of tundra swans are particularly vocal when foraging on their wintering grounds or when in aggressive or defensive situations. Walter refers to the tundra swans as “symbols of wilderness” and for good reason. These birds take on characteristics of their environment through reflections on their large white bodies, mirroring the colors and light of their surroundings. Similarly, tundra swans have long been associated with romance for their elegant outlines and mating habits. These birds typically pair off by the age of two or three and will form a permanent lifelong bond. Once a pair is formed, the two birds will feed and roost together year-round.

These impressive birds can be found at Eastern Neck from late November to March, which is when they migrate back to their breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle. Eager visitors and bird watchers can expect a large portion of the flock to have arrived by mid-to-late December, with smaller groups arriving more gradually. The Tundra Swan Boardwalk and its observation platform on the edge of Tubby Cove is the best location to get a closer look at the visiting flocks. Whether you are an avid birdwatcher or just a curious visitor, this is are an intriguing species worth a closer look!

Alexa Reed is supported by a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the author and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the US Government or NFWF and its funding sources.

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