Tundra Swans at Their Winter Home

Tundra swans at Mattamuskeet Refuge, NC, Sept 2015 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

29 December 2022

Tundra swans pass over Pittsburgh in mid November but rarely stop on their way to the Chesapeake and Tidewater North Carolina. I missed seeing them overhead in Pennsylvania so while in Virginia this week I went to visit them at their winter home.

Tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) breed in the arctic wetlands of Russia, Alaska and Canada and spend the winter in temperate marshes and grasslands, often near the coast.

Tundra swan range map from Wikimedia Commons (orange = breeding, blue – wintering)

Banding and radio-tag studies in the 1980s revealed that North America’s tundra swan population is split east and west with separate breeding and wintering grounds. In 2015 US Fish and Wildlife estimated approximately 117,100 in the eastern population and 56,300 in the west.

Western and Eastern populations of tundra swans (maps from US Fish & Wildlife)

The largest winter concentration of tundra swans is in northeastern North Carolina, deep purple on this eBird map (Dec-Jan occurrences in the past 10 years).

eBird map of tundra swan distribution in the Lower 48, Dec-Jan in the past 10 years (2012-2022)

Virginia’s Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge is close to the North Carolina border and attracts a portion of that large population. On the day after Christmas I stopped by to see them.

The bay view from the boardwalk is vast (see below) and the swans were quite distant. Through my scope I counted only 65 at first.

The bay at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge (photo by WarriorMare via Flickr Creative Commons license)

But I could hear a lot more swans than I could see. Over the next few hours more than 200 moved out to open water. The loudest ones shouted at each other and leaned in to emphasize their point.

Tundra swans vocalizing (illustration of European subspecies (Bewick’s swan) by Jos Zwarts from Wikimedia Commons

Listen to distant tundra swans at Back Bay NWR, humming, whistling and shouting. Don’t be fooled when they sound like sandhill cranes. These are tundra swans at their winter home.

Tundra swans vocalizing at Back Bay NWR, Virginia, 26 Dec 2022 (recorded by Kate St. John)

(credits are in the photo and map captions; click on the captions to see the originals. Sound converted from .wav to .mp3 using online-audio-converter.com)

One thought on “Tundra Swans at Their Winter Home

  1. We live about an hour from Mattamuskeet, and a closer to several other lakes and ponds that also attract overwintering Tundra swans and, in lesser numbers. Snow geese. The numbers at Mattamuskeet have declined significant in recent years, I believe due to a reduction in aquatic forage caused by agricultureal runoff. There are still many Tundra swans in our vicinity. We hear them regularly from the parking lot of our nearest Aldi.

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