By Dr Karen Antell
Swans. Their beauty and grace belie their resilience, strength, and stamina. Long necks extended beyond powerful wings provide aerodynamic efficiency necessary for long flight. Yet, they also glide seemingly effortlessly across lakes and ponds, equally at home on water or air. The long journey of Tundra Swans represents one of our most reliable harbingers of early spring, and their annual arrival in the Wallowa Country never fails to surprise and delight.
As we grudgingly begin to think about emerging from our deep winter slumbers, the swans have already begun their amazing annual migration northward! For they are hardy creatures, inured to the cold with warm downy fluff. Living and breeding on the Yukon Delta of NW Alaska, they migrate as far south as the Sacramento River Delta, a journey of over 2,500 miles. They arrive in California in November or December, where they lay over for only a month or two, feeding on aquatic vegetation, invertebrates, and leftover grain, before turning their attention back northward.
Occasionally, Tundra Swans appear in our area in December or January. Some birds chose to eschew the crowds of central California to roam around the Columbia basin in search of open water or spent grain fields. These wanderers appear on Wallowa County Christmas Bird Counts in 12 out of the last 36 years.
Bonded for life, mates travel together in family groups. At peak migration, larger gathers come together, often joining raucous flocks of Snow Geese, who share their route northward. While they may seem calm and quiet compared to their noisy companions, Tundra Swans speak their own language. Meriwether Lewis christened them Whistling Swans, describing the sound of the wind in their wings as they drop from sky to earth.
We have only a few, short February weeks to enjoy these extraordinary vagabonds as they pause to feed along their long journey homeward. For, despite their Latin name, Cygnus columbianus, they are Tundra Swans after all, not California or Oregon Swans.