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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Bird watchers enjoy the show at Rieck's Lake Park in Alma. Swans gather here for two to three weeks in November-early December. © RJ & Linda Miller.

October 2001

Marking time with the swans of autumn

At Rieck's Lake, migrating tundra swans are the grace note of the fall season.

Don Blegen

Bird watchers enjoy the show at Rieck's Lake Park in Alma. Swans gather here for two to three weeks in November-early December.

© RJ & Linda Miller

The crowds stand along the shore, watching the sky. Some hold the finest cameras and lenses that money can buy, while others have the cheapest disposable cameras. Some have binoculars or spotting scopes; others have just their eyes and their curiosity. But all are here to mark the changing of the season from autumn to winter as certainly as the swallows' return to Capistrano marks the change from winter to spring. Some along the lakeshore have witnessed this event every year of their adult lives. As you grow old, there is sweetness in something that you can expect to happen year after year, without change. Others have the wide-eyed wonder of a first time experience. They spill out of yellow buses with little sense of history, but plenty of excitement gazing across the marshy lake at hundreds of large white birds scattered across the surface.

As the spectators gather, so do the birds, first sporadically in the distance and then they approach at surprising speed. As they come closer, it's clear the birds are much bigger and much faster than they first appeared. Impressive for their size and speed, their beauty and their grace, tundra swans sweep out of the North on powerful wings stretching to seven feet or more. In respect for their elegance, strength and dignity, the traditional term for a group of swans is a "ballet," not a flock.

The swans know exactly where they are going. They have been coming to Rieck's Lake where the Buffalo River enters the Mississippi River at Alma in late fall for as long as anyone can remember. Here the rivers form a backwater rich in aquatic delicacies and a backdrop for one of nature's artful, athletic performances. Swans swoop down against the wind, necks arched, wings outstretched, black feet reaching. Their bodies tip back, increasing air resistance, braking their speed. Their feet hit the water and the huge birds ski for several feet, sink to their breasts and plow a wake for several more feet. Then they fold their wings and begin swimming, stately and dignified, effortlessly and gracefully making the transition from air to water.

The tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus) is a huge bird, one of North America's largest. A large male tundra swan will match a bald eagle's wingspread and, at 25 pounds or more, it's nearly triple the eagle's weight. A condor or albatross will exceed its wingspread, but not its weight. The only North American bird species that may outweigh a big male tundra swan would be the closely related trumpeter swan, a white pelican, or a large wild turkey tom.

Tundras take a rest. Notice the splayed black feet in readiness for touchdown. © Don Blegen
Tundras take a rest. Notice the splayed black feet in readiness for touchdown.

© Don Blegen

The tundra swan was named "whistling swan" by Lewis and Clark on their Westward exploration. To me, the bird's call is really more of a melodious yodel, or a whoop, than a whistling sound. It is much like a louder Canada goose call, and quite different from the brassy cry of the trumpeter swan. Perhaps because of this, several years ago, they were renamed tundra swans because they breed in areas near the Arctic Circle in Alaska and Canada, especially the marshy deltas of the Mackenzie and Anderson rivers in Northwest Territories.

In the middle of the last century, these swans were hunted relentlessly for their meat and feathers. Hudson Bay Company records show that the number of swanskins traded declined from 1,312 in 1854 to only 122 by 1877. These probably included both tundra and trumpeter swans, but clearly dramatic declines in swan numbers continued to the turn of the century and beyond. Both tundra and trumpeter swans were nearly wiped out. Once the first conservation steps started and the graceful birds were afforded some degree of protection, the population started a slow climb back from the brink of extinction. Tundra swan populations have done well, and are now so numerous that very limited hunting seasons are held in some western states. Trumpeter swans are doing well, too.

Tundras begin their arctic nesting season while spring storms may still cover them with snow. Their nests are often constructed (atop beaver and muskrat lodges) of sedges and grasses, and may be five feet across and up to two feet above the water line, giving the adult birds a good view of possible threats. Two to six eggs are laid, taking six weeks to hatch cygnets. For comparison, pheasants and chickens incubate for three weeks, and ducks and geese take four weeks. The female does all the incubating while the male stands some distance away to guard against predators. Usually no more than one or two cygnets will survive to fledging, which takes about 100 days. The juvenile birds have a brownish tint to their plumage, especially on the head and neck, and are easily distinguished from their parents. After about 15 months, they will produce the snow-white plumage of an adult swan.

After the cygnets fledge and the weather on the breeding grounds deteriorates, the tundra swans begin their long journey south to winter feeding grounds. They often travel at great heights, between 6,000 and 8,000 feet, taking advantage of northern tail winds that may push their flight speeds to nearly 100 mph. Without a tail wind, they can still maintain speeds of 60 mph, a mile a minute.

Traveling south and east, they stop at prairie potholes and other aquatic habitat to rest and feed.

In this way, they traverse Canada into the Dakotas and east through Minnesota to the Mississippi.

Here they will stop at several sites along the great river to feed until freeze-up, but one of their favorite places seems to be Rieck's Lake.

They will feed on wild celery, arrowroot, and other succulent water plants until winter locks away these aquatic goodies below a thick sheet of ice. This can happen anytime from November to December. Then the journey continues, not south, but east, to Chesapeake Bay and tidal marshes in Virginia and North Carolina where tundras spend the winter feeding on mollusks and crustaceans as well as aquatic plants. And, as spring approaches, they start the long journey back, following the spring thaw to the Far North for another breeding season.

Long journeys carry risks. Bad weather is one. A hailstorm in March of 1954 battered a large group of swans to the ground in west central Wisconsin near Menomonie, killing about 40. These birds were confiscated by federal wardens and later used as museum mounts.

And hunters take their toll. Some western states issue a special permit allowing a hunter to legally take one tundra swan per season. Even in states where they are completely protected, like Wisconsin, hunters (accidentally or otherwise) kill swans. Hunters sometimes shoot swans claiming to mistake them for snow geese. This is a pretty weak argument, as a swan is enormous compared to a goose. It is also ALL white, without the distinctive black wingtips of a snow goose. Nevertheless, hunters in Wisconsin shoot tundra and trumpeter swans every year.

Rarely, there are impacts with airplanes. Ballets of swans flying at high altitudes are known to have caused at least two fatal air crashes.

If a swan survives to maturity, it will mate for life. If its mate is killed, however, it may take another. Swans are long-lived birds. There isn't much research on their life expectancy in the wild, but swans in captivity have lived 30 to 40 years.

Whatever the mortality rate from hunters, predators and weather, there are a lot more of these magnificent birds now than in the past, and more people get to see them. Often swans are glimpsed flying overhead and mistaken for snow geese. Remember that snow geese have black wingtips. If the birds in the flock overhead are all white, flying with their necks straight out, they are swans.

People who come to Rieck's Lake to watch the swans can experience the birds at relatively close range. Close enough to see the small yellow spot at the base of the concave black beak. That mark varies in size and is missing in some adult birds. In the Eurasian version of the tundra swan (called Bewick's swan) that mark is bigger and more common, and there is evidence that the swans use it to identify each other. The tundra swan's upper bill is concave; the trumpeter's is a straight slant. These field marks that separate tundras and trumpeters are very hard to see, because swans will not usually tolerate close human contact. But here it can be done with the aid of good binoculars.

Hundreds, sometimes thousands of the birds can be seen on the water among the emergent vegetation, some sleeping, some actively feeding in open water, some sitting on chunks of ice as comfortably as if they were sitting on a down comforter. And overhead, small formations of swans circle the area, checking it out. It is the sight of these swans that stir the watchers the most. The birds have come from some far, far place, and are tired and hungry. Below them they see all the people along the shore, and some probably feel fear. But there on the water below is a city of swans, feeding, comfortable, resting their weary wings.

The newcomers circle into the wind, losing altitude, spreading their ivory wings, reaching out with jet-black feet, tilting their bodies back to brake, maneuvering down among their brethren with an amazing grace and delicacy, to become just a few more anonymous white birds among the throng, as serene and dignified as the others – a ballet of swans at rest.

For a few weeks this place echoes with the sounds of their calls and reverberates with their overwhelming presence. A bitter cold front will move in one night, freezing all the water, and the swans leave. An empty silence replaces the raucous, resonant music of their calls. Another year has passed.

Don Blegen travels to watch and photograph nature from his home base in Spring Valley.