First Tundra Swans of the Year

by Lanny McDowell on January 4, 2010

IMG_3334DWingatecr6 They were also the first in quite a while on Martha’s Vineyard.  They sort of had to be the first of the year, since it was the first of the year, about ten thirty in the morning.

The checklist for the Martha’s Vineyard Christmas Bird Count, which takes place tomorrow, on January fifth, due to a weather delay, says the CBC has recorded one Tundra Swan  since 1999.  Soo Whiting’s book, Vineyard Birds II,  says tundras were seen more frequently and more regularly on CBCs up until ‘92 and then, for the most part, not seen after that.  She writes, “Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are the two best places in Massachusetts where an observer might expect to see this rare visitor.”  It’s only a guess, but I would be quite surprised if the pair I saw will be seen tomorrow. How cool it would be if they were.

On New Year’s Day I took Stella out to Hancock Beach, on the lookout for winter Harriers and because we both wanted to stand at the edge of the ocean.  The road out to the dunes was flooded at the south end by the high waters of Chilmark Pond.  I parked the Jeep and reconnoitered for a way across, but it was soon clear that getting to the beach was not going to happen without a good chance of wet feet, even in my Muck Boots.  We backup up, turned around and went for another access further east, at Black Point Pond.  From a distance I could see that the beaches of the frozen pond were exposed, implying the water level there and on Tisbury Great Pond were still tidal, or at least relatively low.  This portends well for making it to the beach using the elevated wooden walkway that traverses the wettest areas just inboard of the barrier dunes.  Despite my optimism, thin ice covered water at each end of the walkway, water deep enough that I skirted the deepest parts and walked in the brushy sides to the path, where I thought the ice would hold me better and where there was some shrubbery to grab onto for stability.  Anyway, long story long, I slipped and slided out to the beach which was stunning in the harsh winter sunlight and devoid of any beings standing up.  No birds either.  I saw one skunkhead cruising just outside the incessant breakers, slowing occasionally to peruse small groups of other scoters.

Where is that guy?  He is sooo slow!

Where is that guy? He is sooo slow!

Then there is the bit about posing, when I could be running, chasing, wading, digging ...

Then there is the bit about posing, when I could be running, chasing, wading, digging ...

West to Lucy Vincent Beach

Same shot, west to Lucy Vincent Beach, less Stella

BlkPt010110P4 072sm

No birds in sight.  All the inland water is frozen.

No birds in sight. All the inland water is frozen.

The way in.  The way out.  So fay two Great Black-backed Gulls and some distant scoters.

The way in. The way out. So far, two Great Black-backed Gulls and some distant scoters.

The place was absolutely beautiful.  You can’t really go wrong with the location.  If you feel bad here, then you feel bad.  It’s not the place.

I saw a distant mocker.  A couple of TVs. I heard a Song Sparrow complain.  Can’t blame them, given the conditions on the ground, plus a biped and a boxer.  As I was walking over the too short bridge, I heard an unfamiliar sound.  Sometimes the metal-on-metal of my bino strap connection to my binos makes a little annoying squeak.  But no, this wasn’t that sound.  It was lower, and soft.  Straight ahead and up maybe fifty/sixty feet were two swans winging west, not in a hurry, but steady on.  I unslung my camera first, keeping the shutter punched and wheeling in and out of focus as the birds moved on.  When the swans were too far out for the camera, I used my binocs to see if they put down anywhere.  They made one looping pass over the northeast end of Greater Chilmark Pond and then continued west beyond my tolerance for straining my eyes.

Now that I think of it, I do not remember hearing any whistle from the swans’ wings, the way you would with a Mute Swan.  That reedy vibration the flight feathers make.  Perhaps subliminally that lack of wing sound told me these were Tundra Swans.

I am told there were tundras spotted on the Nantucket CBC, also on the first of the year, later in the day than I encountered the Vineyard birds.  So have a second look at swans you are taking for granted this time of year.

But wait!  What's that unfamiliar call?

But wait! What's that unfamiliar call?

Birds are cool!  Lanny

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Casey Shannon 01.04.10 at 11:03 pm

Really enjoyed this!

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