Lovers of wildlife should start visiting their state or federal wildlife areas. Geese, swans, ducks and eagles are returning and putting on quite a show.
Snow geese are coming in by the millions, forming a cloud of white against an azure sky. They mill around and form long lines that sometimes take several minutes to pass overhead. They are a noisy bunch that travels with strength in numbers. I have watched refuge lakes covered in white, like a carpet, when the incoming millions arrive.
Ducks are coming back too. Recently on a trip to Loess Bluffs Federal Wildlife Area north of St. Joseph, I watched pintails, mallards, widgeon, scaup and a sprinkling of coots mixing in with geese and swans. They tend to be spookier than their bigger cousins and flush easier and more often, making them hard to photograph.
Here are a few facts about three of our well-traveled visitors:
TUNDRA SWANS: Tundra swans were in good numbers at Loess Bluffs. I did not see any protected trumpeter swans, but you can bet some were there. Tundras are magnificent in flight with 8-foot wing spans and a deep sound that almost seems sad. They are impressive in flight and not shy about sleeping on the frozen sections of a lake. Soon they will start their long flight north to make new families.
I have always been shocked at the size of these birds, almost twice bigger than most Canada geese in appearance, even though a large bird only weighs about 21 pounds full grown. Their 8-foot wingspan and big, white bodies with black bills are beautiful against the morning’s blue sky.
Their massive wings had long ago given them the nickname “whistling swans” because of the high-pitched sound made as wind pushes through their wing feathers. Those incredibly strong wings can propel them to a staggering height of 27,000 feet. They look positively majestic.
“Those birds are huge,” Dale Humberg, retired chief waterfowl biologist for Ducks Unlimited, once told me. “A good-sized man can hold one up to his chest and the tail will touch the ground. The neck and wingtips make their weight deceptive. They are not heavy as one would expect but their feathers are dense like a goose or any other migrant.”
Tundra swans, changed from the common name of whistling swan in 1982 by the American Ornithologists Union, breed in northern Canada around tundra areas of Hudson Bay and west to Alaska, later wintering in the Chesapeake Bay marshes in the U.S.
“I have spotted tundra swans nesting across the Arctic, Alaska and Hudson Bay,” Humberg said. “We have seasons on tundra swans because of numbers and status. Trumpeter swans are threatened in numbers, but thankfully they are recovering. Tundra swans are legally hunted only in limited states.”
U.S. primary wintering areas include the Atlantic coast from northern South Carolina to southern New Jersey, the Great Salt Lake vicinity and central and northern California. Other groups may scatter across the country and even appear in the San Francisco Bay area.
According to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, tundra swans should not be confused with the larger trumpeter and mute swans. Trumpeter swans are found almost exclusively in the Midwest and western states. Mute swans are generally non-migratory and can be found scattered throughout North Carolina. They are a non-native species that can be quite aggressive when approached.
Tundra swan numbers have currently set a new record of 210,000 birds, quite a compliment to sound conservation efforts. Swans are protected in most of the United States, and states that allow hunting closely regulate bag numbers. Utah was the first state to allow tundra swan hunting in 1962 and other states now have seasons, including Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina. Check your local game and fish regulations for more details on hunting this bird.
Tundra swans, considered fine cuisine by some, become familiar by late season with the dangers of being hunted. Worse, this no doubt includes sky busting throughout the season because of their size. I have always heard that the rule for judging Canada geese in shooting range is seeing their feet. This would not work with a swan with big, black feet that are often 7 to 9 inches wide and highly visible.
SNOW GEESE: Populations of greater snow geese were reduced to only 2,000-3,000 around year 1900 but they have made satisfactory recovery. Total number of lesser snow geese apparently has increased greatly in recent decades. Population may vary because of Arctic summer weather: in a series of exceptionally cold summers. Snow geese breed in colonies on Canadian and northern Alaskan tundra in the vicinity of the coast, from the high arctic to the subarctic.
They choose areas near ponds, shallow lakes, coastal salt marshes, or streams, preferring rolling terrain that loses its snow early and escapes flooding during spring thaw. Snow geese form three separate regional populations – eastern, central and western – distinctions that are more or less preserved as the geese migrate to their wintering grounds.
During spring and fall migration along all four major North American flyways, geese frequently stop in open areas like lakes or farm fields. They winter in regions on both American coasts as well as in some inland areas, frequenting open habitats like marshes, grasslands, marine inlets, freshwater ponds and agricultural fields.
Snow geese breed from late May to mid-August but leave their nesting areas and spend more than half the year on migrations going and coming from warmer wintering areas. During spring migrations, large flocks of snow geese fly very high and migrate in large numbers along narrow corridors, more than 3,000 miles from traditional wintering areas to the tundra.
EAGLES: Bald and golden eagles follow waterfowl migrations. They love to find a sick or hurt goose, duck or swan for an easy meal. Eagles are nesting more in the Midwest than ever before because of resident flocks of ducks and geese that found our area to their liking. This is an excellent time of year to photograph eagles around waterfowl refuges.
The migrations have begun. Take your kids and don’t forget binoculars. This is the greatest free show ever.
– Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at email@example.com.