Tundra Swans


(This column was first published in the April 13, 1992 issue of The Buffalo News.)


      Most western New Yorkers make their annual Easter pilgrimage to the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge and Oak Orchard swamps to see Canada geese.  And of course they are richly rewarded.  Tens of thousands of these geese stand in pasture stubble or ride high on marsh waters, occasionally rising to the skies to join others in skeins or vees, all the while honking that off-key klaxon.


      But some of us, like Warren Button and me, go instead to see white birds: snow geese and tundra or whistling swans.  You have to look hard to pick out these geese and even swans from the thousands of mostly gray and black Canadas, but when you find them you are rewarded.  This time you see not one of an uncountable many but one of a very few.


      Each spring the total number of all of these white birds observed in this area may be counted in dozens, sometimes still fewer.  This year I was lucky.  On April 3, I found 130 tundra swans on Wood Marsh north of Bartel Road in the Tonawanda Wildlife Management Area.


      These are majestic birds.  They stretch well over four feet long and enjoy a wingspread of seven feet, about the same as that of an eagle.  When they sit on the water, their necks rise arrow-straight, giving them a posture that is both regal and graceful.  Watching them drifting in stately groups, you realize how right for the finest ballerinas is Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.


      Erect posture is not common to all swans.  For years a mute swan wintered in Buffalo Harbor and summered at Tifft Nature Preserve.  The neck of this species is usually held in a curved position.  (Unfortunately this local swan died a few days ago when it flew into power lines on its five mile spring migration.)


      Even the trumpeter swan, a rarer western species most often seen in Yellowstone Park but that occurred in the Niagara River a few years ago, generally holds its neck kinked so that it appears to rise out of the forepart of its back.


      The bill of an adult mute swan is also very different: it is largely orange with a black knob where it meets the forehead.  Bills of tundra and trumpeter swans are straight and black.


      Several years ago I was standing in the yard of my Amherst home when I heard goose-like calling but softer and lower in pitch.  I turned just in time to see three tundra swans in perfect echelon shoot overhead only a few feet above the trees.  They were so close that I could hear the "howf howf howf" of their wing beats.


      That was the first time I realized how very fast they fly.  Their wing beat is slower than the smaller geese and ducks, giving them the appearance of proportionally slower flight, but in truth their powerful wings are driving them forward at a high rate.  One migrating group averaged 51 mph on an eleven hour flight!


      They need that powerful flight.  The swans that pass through this region have come from the Chesapeake Bay area.  They will continue west from here to North Dakota before they turn north or northwest to fly on to the farthest boundaries of continental North America.


      I close these comments about tundra swans by recounting the saddest event in local ornithological history.  On March 15, 1908, 102 of these beautiful birds, evidently blinded by a severe rainstorm, were caught in the rapids above Niagara Falls and swept over.  James Savage reported, "These splendid birds, helpless after their terrible plunge over the cataract, were dashed against the ice bridge by the swift current, amid cakes of loose ice.  Some had been killed outright by the falls.  Others...were soon imprisoned in the ice where their pitiful cries were heartrending.... It was not long before men and boys, armed with guns and sticks, became the chief factors in the closing scene.-- Gerry Rising