The tundra swan is one of the 747s of the waterfowl world

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  • OAK HARBOR — Observe swans in motion for a period of time, and it becomes easy to understand why Swan Lake was such an appropriate title for a ballet. The story behind the classic involves a swan that is the epitome of beauty and grace.

    “There is just something about them that makes them display such gracefulness,” said Mark Shieldcastle, research director for Black Swamp Bird Observatory north of here, along the shore of Lake Erie.

    “Canada geese show power and just kind of lumber along, but with swans, the thing that strikes you is that grace.”

    Tundra swans are one of just two species of swan that are native to North America, along with the trumpeter swan. Tundra swans show their beauty and grace in this part of the country when they stop in the marshes along Lake Erie twice a year during marathon migration flights.

    From their winter grounds along the shores of Maryland and North Carolina, tundra swans follow an arc across the upper reaches of the continent, a trip that often takes them more than 4,000 miles. They follow the ice breakup to find open water, and pass over many areas heavy with agriculture to feed on grain left in the fields after the fall harvest.

    “For a long time, we didn’t see large concentrations of them, but now they are shifting back to the Western Basin of Lake Erie,” Mr. Shieldcastle said. “We’re starting to see concentrations of swans come back again, concentrations that were common 30 or 40 years ago.”

    Tundra swans have been tracked leaving their Atlantic coast wintering grounds throughout February and arriving in their Arctic breeding grounds in May and June. They travel at a somewhat leisurely pace, and can spend from several days to several weeks in the Lake Erie marshes while en route.

    The swans make the return flight to warmer climes in November, but at a faster pace with fewer and shorter stops.

    John Cooper of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources has been observing waterfowl along the Canadian side of Lake Erie for nearly 40 years. Mr. Cooper said it used to be tough to view tundra swans, because they fed primarily on aquatic vegetation, and nearshore ice often pushed the swans away from the coastline. But because the swans now collect in agricultural fields to feed on waste corn, they are enjoyed by many.

    “This is the swan we see most often in the Lake Erie area, and they are very distinctive as an all-white bird of that size,” Mr. Cooper said. The stopover of the swans on their migration is celebrated on the Canadian side of Lake Erie with the Wings of Spring Festival in March.

    Tundra swans gather in flocks of dozens, hundreds, and even thousands during their very early spring stops along Lake Erie.

    “The arrival of tundra swans is an early sign that spring is on the way,” Mr. Cooper said. “And they are always enjoyable to watch. They are quite dramatic.”

    Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: or 419-724-6068.