Perhaps it is just luck that a person happens to look up at the right time, peer into the heavens and spot a flock of migratory birds. During the autumn of 2017, Elaine and I were sitting on a picnic bench near the beach in Cold Lake Provincial Park, when up in the clear blue sky a formation of swans caught our attention.
A connection with swans—notably larger than most birds—is an experience to remember. Wondering why there were relatively few sightings in the Cold Lake area over the years, we learned that tundra swans use a major flyway through northwestern Alberta, and then generally right down the centre of the province, heading to the American west coast region. Explorer Merriwether Lewis named the tundra swan the “whistling swan” from hearing the whistling sounds of their wings while on his travels.
Symbolic of beauty, love, grace, trust, and loyalty, the smaller of our two native swans is almost entirely white and sports a long neck ending with a black bill, showing a small yellow spot on the black facial skin in front of the eye. Tundra swans have a more rounded head and a somewhat concave bill compared to the trumpeter swan. The tundra also has its eyes more separated from the black mask of the face.
Ranging from four to five feet in length, with a wingspan of nearly six feet, swans are awe-inspiring. Coming in for a landing, swans display their massive outstretched feet, and their wings are adjusted as they prepare to land.
It’s interesting to see swans feeding, tilted with tail up and neck outstretched in order to reach the lake bottom for food. Opportunistic ducks will congregate near swans looking for portions of a free meal. We’ve seen juvenile swans paddling their feet to kick up food to the surface, followed by dipping their heads to scoop up the rewards.
Nesting in the arctic tundra, the bonded pairs raise an average of four young swans over the course of the summer. Tundra swans mate for life—if one of the partners dies prematurely, the other may never mate again.
The diet enjoyed in the arctic consists of aquatic vegetation and mollusks. Meals of grain, corn, barley, and soybeans provide the energy for their migration journey. Juvenile swans sport grey feathers turning white when reaching maturity.
Interested in seeing these magnificent swans? Take time to travel north and south through the major flyway in central Alberta, especially in late October. Or consider the same flyway in late April or early May. A chance to enjoy and appreciate this graceful, beautiful and loyal avian wonder is something Elaine and I truly recommend.