I was walking my daughter’s dog near sunset one afternoon a couple Sundays ago when the distant cries of fans at a ball game wafted to me: “Who-whoo! Oo-ooo! Who!” This was an excited group, cheering constantly, their cries overlapping.
Wait a minute. A ball game … on Sunday … in Utah? Not likely. Then, a thought struck: Look up.
A ‘V’ of tundra swans was winging so high overhead I could barely discern their long necks against the steely sky, but their distinctive voices gave them away. The sound carries for miles and it’s the reason the species used to be called the whistling swan. It sounds like the bird is forcing a high-pitched keening through its nose.
Tundra swans seemed out of place flying over Ogden’s east bench, and they were heading north when they should have been westbound. Where did they come from? Where were they headed? I was intrigued. The dog was not.
Friend Jack Rensel spotted a collared tundra swan at Salt Creek Waterfowl Management Area (WMA) a few years ago that offered a data point to help answer the first question. Reporting the collar’s color, alphanumeric letters and location information to www.reportband.gov netted a reply from the researcher who had collared the bird as a cygnet a couple years earlier: Kotzebue, Alaska.
Tundra swans generally are part of two populations: Eastern and western. Eastern swans breed in coastal areas from Alaska’s Point Hope east, and western birds breed in areas south of Point Hope, such as Kotzebue. The Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta well south of Point Hope hosts the highest density of western breeding birds.
Their boomerang migration path inland from Alaska to California takes them through the Great Basin, where Great Salt Lake’s ecosystem harbors tens of thousands until the freeze. It’s most likely that the forty or so out-of-place swans that who-who’d over my head were western population birds. And as for where they’re headed, well, eventually, about 75 percent winter in California, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The in-between Alaska and California part is the fun part for us. While catching a glimpse and a sound byte over scrub-oak foothills is inspiring, better looks and listens were to be had in marshes where the pure white birds, each with a six-and-a-half-foot wingspan and weighing over 20 pounds, rested and gained strength for the last leg of the journey.
Swan numbers peak from mid-to-late November. Their who-whoing hangs over Farmington and Ogden Bays, and Harold Crane WMA. Small flocks pass over Antelope Island’s causeway. But Bear River Refuge is the crown jewel of swan bivouacs, the refuge often hosting more than half of the swans the DWR records weekly, or up to 30,000 of the 50,000 birds by late November.
Imagine: 50,000 birds at 20 pounds each; that’s a million pounds of swans in our marshes — and most people who live along the Wasatch Front don’t even know they’re there!
A good listening stop on the way to the refuge last week was on West Forest Street about halfway from I-15 to the auto tour loop. A bend of the Bear River touches the road there and on the north side, I could see the big white birds on Chesapeake Gun Club marshlands. Many were feeding, exposing the undersides of their tails like white triangles as they stretched their yard-long necks underwater to pull tubers and stems. They may have been pulling sago pondweed, a favorite food.
The swans’ presence was a boon to many species of dabbling ducks milling around. While all dabblers can dive, why bother when the swans’ feeding causes sago pondweed fragments to surface? Northern shovelers, American wigeon, gadwall, green-winged teal and mallards joined the feeding, as well as ubiquitous American coots.
A rising tide lifts all boats, I guess.
The refuge’s northern bay, or unit 1, is by far the swans’ favorite. They line the horizon like a dense white sprinkling of salt and even though a spotting scope is necessary, the sounds are unmistakable. A good spot to listen for the who-whooing is at the tour loop’s northwest turn.
It won’t last for much longer. The drop in numbers after Thanksgiving was remarkable as ice crept out from the marsh edges to consume the shallow water. Only in mild winters do small numbers of swans remain in Utah; the rest push to the Pacific coast. Don’t worry, however; they’ll be back in time for the spring melt.
Kristin Purdy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.