Believed to mate for life, Tundra Swans spend an entire year together before breeding. Although at winter grounds here in Northern California they gather in huge flocks, they are solitary at winter quarters in Alaska and Western Canada where they breed in spring in territories spread out across the tundra. Each couple defends a territory of about three-fourths square miles (two square kilometers). By the time the eggs have hatched the weather has warmed, and during the long, warm summer Arctic days their young called cygnets grow quickly in preparation for the flight South for the winter.
Tundra swans are large at almost 5 feet from beak to tail, 7 foot wing span, and weighing about twenty pounds. Their black bills and feet are contrasted against stunning snow-white feathers. They are one of only two swans native to North America. The Trumpeter swan was nearly hunted to death in previous centuries and now survives in a few locations here in the West. The Tundra swans were likewise hunted, but they adapted well and followed the lead of the Canada geese to discover new terrain and feeding grounds that rescued their populations; however, their numbers have diminished over the years.
Christmas Bird Count
Christmas bird counts of Tundra swans reveal dwindling numbers with a peak in 1988 of 1,502, 2006/07 at 1,033, and 2008/09 at only 772 swans. If you wish to participate in the count here is some information about this year’s count and how you can join in.
The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) has been taking place for 110 years, and this year it will be the 111th year for this Audubon sponsored event to take place. The CBC is a long-standing program of the National Audubon Society, with over 100 years of citizen science involvement. It is an early-winter bird census, where thousands of volunteers across the US, Canada and 19 countries in the Western Hemisphere, go out over a 24 hour period to count birds. The count is done entirely by private citizen volunteers.
The first bird count created in 1900 was actually done to prevent an annual hunt that focused on killing birds, which was called “side-hunt.” The group who killed the most birds won the event. The famed ornithologist Frank Chapman of the American Museum of Natural History and editor of Bird Lore at the time observed the declining bird populations and proposed a Christmas Bird Count instead of shooting them.
Thanks to Mr. Chapman and the Audubon Society, birds like the Tundra swan even though declining in numbers can still be seen today, or counted if you wish to participate in annual bird count in December.
Where to View (and Count) Swans
The Eel River Delta south of Eureka is a popular place for birders to go for the CBC. The delta is 12 miles south of Eureka. Take Hookton Rd. west from U.S. 101 for 5 miles to Table Bluff/Eel River Wildlife Are. You can view from the parking area, but you can also take a boat from Drab Park or Cock Robin Island. There are guided groups from the Camp Weott Guide Services.
On the border between Oregon and California is the Klamath Basin Wildlife Preserve. This is a very large preserve with 39,000 acres created in 1928 and winter home to many flocks of birds. Approximately 17,000 acres are leased by farmers under a program administered by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Refuge permit holders farm another 1,900 acres of cereal grain and alfalfa. These crops, together with the waste grain and potatoes from the lease program are a major food source for migrating and wintering waterfowl.
A ten mile auto tour route allows for wildlife observation throughout the year You can get information about the best spots to see swans at the refuge headquarters outside Tulelake. It is located 5 miles west of Tulelake on East-West Road ½ mile south on Hill Road.
Closer to the San Francisco Bay area is the Consumnes River Preserve located between Sacrmento and Stockton. The Consumnes River Preserve encompasses and protects thousands of acres of wetlands and adjacent uplands. These lands, once considered insect ridden, unattractive, and even dangerous, today are recognized as beautiful places with important roles in local and global ecology.
More than 250 bird species, more than 40 fish species, and some 230 plant species have been identified on the Preserve. For information on directions, guided tours and Christmas Bird Count visit their website here.
Close to Stockton, California is the Woodridge Road Ecological Preserve where Tundra swans join Sandhill Cranes. The Department of Fish Game suggests exploring further west on Woodbridge Road, to see cranes and other birds feeding in surrounding farm fields (Woodbridge Road dead ends within 6 miles). If you choose to drive down the road looking at all the bird activity, they request that you please stay in your cars. Woodbridge road is a working farm road and during the fall large grain trucks move rather quickly down the narrow road. For your safety they recommend the use of emergency flashers if you are moving slowly or pulled over on the road. Sunset is the prime viewing opportunity for "crane fly-in" during the fall/winter season.
NOTE: The North site of the Reserve which includes the crane viewing shelter can only be visited on a docent led tour. There is no trespassing into the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve/Isenberg Sandhill Crane Reserve or onto the properties along Woodbridge Road.
Visit their website for more information and directions.
Eastern U.S. Tundra Swans
North Carolina plays a vital role in the yearly cycle of the Eastern Population of tundra swans, wintering more swans, by far, than any other state on the East Coast. Each fall, approximately 65 - 75 thousand swans migrate to northeastern North Carolina to take advantage of the abundant food sources found in their lakes, sounds and farms. The approximately 25 thousand remaining swans in this population winter in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and New Jersey.
For more information about East Coast swans visit this website.
Youtube: Tundra swan songs and flight