I never imagined that I could happily spend six hours in a car on a Saturday in search of migrating tundra swans. Among birders, there’s a palpable excitement that comes with the advent of spring even when it isn’t quite here. This weekend, my bird group was so desperate for the first signs of spring, we stubbornly refused to admit that winter was nowhere near over.
It’s not that I’d never seen swans in large numbers before. I’ve seen hundreds of trumpeter and mute swans at Leslie Spit. But it’s that these tundra swans really are the harbingers of spring. As we drove to Long Point, with temperatures well below freezing and near-constant flurries, we were convinced that spring was finally on its way.
There’s something magical about seeing tundra swans migrate on their way to breed in Alaska and the far reaches of the Canadian north. It could be the sheer numbers, we saw at least a few thousand swans resting at the wetlands in Aylmer, or their joyous choral calls, or their beautiful V-shaped flight patterns. Or it could be nature telling us that if the tundra swans are heading north to breed, it won’t be long before the warblers make their way north as well.
The tundra swans that fly over Ontario spend 51 percent of the year migrating from the Arctic to Chesapeake Bay in Maryland (they make the 6,000 kilometres journey twice a year). By no means the most fascinating migratory species, the arctic tern, for instance, travels close to 71,000 kilometres every year, shuttling between north and south poles, tundra swans nevertheless delight precisely because they offer us the first taste of migratory excitement. In a sense, they awaken our own chase-instinct and give us a taste of what’s to come.
What is it that makes migration so fascinating to us? In a sense, it should get boring, given how predictable it is. These birds travel the exact same distances year after year; in fact, they’re such creatures of habit that they often stop to rest on the exact same trees and rocks. And yet, we never tire of watching (and counting!) them. Why doesn’t it get old? Perhaps it’s that they’re so very different from us: most of us lead sedentary lives. We couldn’t imagine actually setting off on a life-threatening journey season after season, although it’s probably something we fantasize about at certain points in our lives. There’s something otherworldly, not to mention gravity-defying, about the thrill of flying. When we watch birds migrate, it’s almost like we’re living vicariously through them.
In the end, weather conditions notwithstanding, the trip to Long Point and Aylmer convinced me that spring had finally arrived. I saw my first killdeer of the season and my first red-winged blackbird. Actually, I saw not one, but hundreds of red-winged blackbirds dotting the bare trees, producing a sinister Hitchcock-effect. Technically, spring begins on March 20, but for me it’s already here in spite of the snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures, just ask the birds!
Julia Zarankin is a writer, editor, and former professor of Russian literature and culture at the University of Missouri. She's a long-time contributor to ON Nature magazine and our blog.