Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Out Scoutin': Tundra Swan

In search of the once rare tundra swan, an early morning birder makes a trip into the heart of the Low Country's ACE Basin. - by Pete Laurie

Truly a prize worth traveling for, tundra swams themselves have traveled a long way to their Palmetto State wintering grounds, following a diagonal path across North America from northern Canada and Alaska.

I stumble down the back steps in the pre-dawn darkness, well bundled against the cold. I point my pick up south on US Hwy 17, on a mission to find one of South Carolina's once-rare wintering waterfowl, the tundra swan. Turning onto Bennett's Point Rd, I see cardinals, always active at dawn, flush from the shoulders of the road as I pass large tracts of planted pine and scattered hardwoods. As I cross Fee Farm Creek I detect the rotten-egg odor of puff mud, a signature Lowcountry smell.

Suddenly, a rather muddy-looking bobcat bounds across the headlights and dives into the marsh grass. Minutes later I cross Brickyard Landing Bridge, and with the sky brightening in the East I can see Bear Island Wildlife Management Area spread out before me on both sides of the road.

A mile or so later I turn into the entrance of Bear Island and stop at the house pond, in front of the gate. At this time of year, tundra swans roost for the night on this shallow, 42 acre pond. I have timed it just right: At once I spot the blocky, long-necked swimmers, dozens of them, representing South Carolina's most spectacular species of waterfowl.

They float like apparitions in the midst of the gathering light, just silhouettes against winter's weak, yellow sun struggling slowly to clear the distant line of loblollies, a sight well worth the long drive.

With the rising sun in my binoculars and a shifting maze of mist from water warmer than the chilled air, I can see no color. The size of their erect necks, with beaks held horizontally, easily identifies the swans. On this morning they all face into the breeze from the Northwest. Nowhere in South Carolina can you get a better look at this symbol of wilderness. The swans, sometimes as many as 100, will remain well after daylight on the perimeter of the preserve. With binoculars or a spotting scope, you can view them almost any morning (this time of year). They appear to eat little this early in the morning, floating silent and serene. But within an hour or so, the great birds become restless. Eventually, they take to the air, calling to each other with their characteristic woo-ho, woo-woo, who-ho as they leave to feed on another property during the day.

The haunting call inspired their discoverers - Lewis and Clark on their famous trek to the Pacific Northwest in 1803 - to first name them "whistling swans". The name stuck for almost 200 years. Now this bird - the smallest of the three swan species living in North America - carries the less interesting name tundra swan, based on its nesting habitat near the Arctic Circle. Tundra swans also get credit for the term "swan song". Several observers over the years have described the beautiful song of a dying swan as it expels air through its vocal cords. Subsequently, swan song has come to mean a final, often spectacular act.

Despite their 6 to 7 foot wingspans, tundra swans have to work to become airborne, but once they do they fly almost effortlessly with slow, shallow wing beats. Moving from place to place on their winter grounds, they have no reason to reach high altitudes. On migrations, however, they climb to as high as 8,000 feet. The pure-white birds, their long necks out straight, leave the pond each morning in several flocks, an impressive reminder of the vanishing North American wilderness.

So on a cold, clear winter morning, ideally in February or March, get up early, make the drive to Bear Island WMA and watch the sun rise over a magnificent visitor from the Far North. I just might join you.

Read more about visiting Bear Island Wildlife Management Area at

Pete Laurie is a free-lance write living on Johns Island.

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