By Gabrielle L. Wheeler
As I drove north on Route 54 out of Hammondsport the other day, some large, white birds on the water caught my attention. Large, white birds often catch my attention, but I was excited about these birds because they only visit our area during the winter months. It was, of course, one of North America’s largest waterfowl, the tundra swan. I made a U-turn and went back down to the park to snap some photos.
Migrating from northern Canada, tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus) over-winter in the Finger Lakes Region by feeding on waste grain in fields, gleaning winter-growing cultivars such as barley, or dabbling with the ducks for aquatic plants in ponds and lakes. Weighing in between 13 and 14 pounds, depending on the sex, tundra swans are the largest waterfowl that regularly visit the area. Tundra swans are all white, with a large black bill and black facial skin in front of the eye above the bill. Some birds will sport a small yellow spot in the black skin, which the similar, and non-regional, trumpeter swan does not. Feet are black.
The salient mute swan of fountain fame is a Eurasian species that was brought to North America for its elegance. The mute swan is that which holds its neck in an arch and forms the heart shape when it is swimming with its mate. Tundra swans hold their necks straight, like a goose, but do form permanent mating pairs at around 2-3 years. If successful at breeding, these pairs will remain together year-round both in the north and on their migrations. The previous season’s young often remain with the parents throughout the winter, though sometimes longer, before dispersing in the spring upon return to the north.
Tundra swans are also referred to as whistling swans due to the whistling noise their feathers make as they fly, a name assigned them by Meriwether Lewis. The North American species is the same as that found in Europe, which is referred to as Bewick’s swan and sports a larger yellow patch in front of the eye. Vagrant Bewick’s swans are sometimes found along the western coast of the US in winter, occasionally having been blown off course during migration.
While spotting large white birds in summer usually results in a species of gull, large, white birds in winter might mean a swan, snow goose, or snowy owl and well worth a stop for a view through the binoculars.