February 28 2018. The west end of Lake Ontario, ON. Every year about this time Tundra Swans start their spring migration, they depart from their Atlantic wintering grounds in large groups and set out on a three or four thousand kilometer journey to the shores of Hudson Bay and islands of the high Arctic.
I like to imagine Chesapeake Bay on a late winter day, when thousands of agitated Tundra Swans sense the time is right and take flight in a loosely coordinated lift off, calling across the marshes to confirm who’s where and then coalescing into groups of dozens, scores and finally hundreds. Then heading inland late in the day to fly overnight towards their first refueling stops around the west end of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Six-hundred kilometers later, we see them on mornings like today.
It was 8.30 when, as I walked away leaving my car for an oil change, a group of about 150 Tundra Swans passed directly overhead, perhaps five hundred feet up. Shortly after this first group left me behind I spotted two or three more, smaller flocks much further away and they cemented a feeling of satisfaction that spring must be on its way.
There are few signs of spring more certain to stop me in my tracks than the sound and sight (usually in that order) of a long V-formation skein of Tundra Swans. Often they seem to be thousands of feet up, almost invisible against a blue March sky but given away as they catch the sun and bright white reflections flash off their bodies. The formations hold their long V shape loosely, sometimes stretching or drifting sideways and re-forming as leaders, outliers and insiders swap places.
All of that was satisfying enough, but this evening I looked at the day’s observations on our local list serve and it was all about Tundra Swans. Here are some excerpts from dozens of similarly excited reports: At 9.07 “…we just had a flock of 150 over our yard …. Heading southwest.” At 9.30 “ Saw a group of ~12 fly over the York Blvd. bridge..” At 9.51 “ I’ve seen three groups of 32, ~65, and 29 fly over the east side of Grimsby this morning. All heading in a generally westward direction.” At 10.08 “Two large groups within 10 minutes of each other estimated at least 250 individuals combined.” You get the idea. By 12.30 the moderator had had enough and called a halt to swan reports.
These first sightings are a marker in the approach of spring, more important than the first snowdrop or robin. Tomorrow I’ll see if I can find some of them on the lakes and flooded fields around here, more should arrive over the next week or two although they don’t do this for our entertainment, so it’s not guaranteed. No matter, they were here today, Birds of the Day.