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Bay Area Birds: Swans migrating is breathtaking

By Charlie Frisk

Every spring, one of the greatest wildlife spectacles in North America takes place right here in Northeast Wisconsin.

Thousands of tundra swans pass through this area on the way to their nesting grounds on the Arctic tundra.

Ironically, very few local residents are aware these large, beautiful birds travel through this area.

The swans are here to do what is called staging, which means that they stop in this area to rest and fatten up before they continue northward.

Studies have shown that they may add up to one-third to their body weight before moving on.

When they arrive on the tundra in a couple of weeks, most of the ground is covered in snow and wetland plants may still be under ice, so they depend on their stored fat for survival until spring fully arrives on the tundra.

The tundra swans that come through this area winter in the Chesapeake Bay marshes and nest in the Canadian North in the tundra areas around Hudson Bay.

Historically, the tundra swans spent most of their staging time in the marshy areas of Green Bay.

There they fattened up on the abundant wild rice, duck potato, wild celery and other wetland plants.

Unfortunately, because of pollution that occurred before the Federal Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, and the introduction of the common carp (nature’s aquatic bulldozer) those plants have largely disappeared from the bay.

Northeast Wisconsin could have lost its tundra swan migration altogether, but the swans discovered an alternative food source.

The swans found they could fatten up on waste grain left in farm fields in the area.

Many of the swans roost on the bay overnight, and then fly out to farm fields to feed for the day.

The best place to see tundra swans is in the flooded farm fields between Black Creek and Shiocton.

Take any of the side roads off of State Highway 54, and scan the surrounding fields.

The Mack Wildlife Area, located between Black Creek and Shiocton, will usually have tundra swans along with a great variety of other waterfowl species.

On a good day, you can see more than 5,000 swans in this area.

Swans can also be seen anywhere along the east shore of the Bay of Green Bay from the City of Green Bay up into Door County, and off of State Highway 29 west of Green Bay.

The tundra swans start arriving in Northeast Wisconsin as soon as the ice is off the wetlands.

With an early spring, the swans can arrive as soon as late February, but the average arrival is mid-March.

By mid-April, they are done staging and are on their way to the Arctic tundra.

The swan migration is truly a magnificent spectacle.

Watching swans take off and land is breathtaking.

Maybe the best part of all are the sounds.

The swans are constantly calling to each other in their soft melodious voices.

As flocks pass overhead, the leader often utters a high note like “who-who-who” which is repeated by flock after flock, producing a high pitched whistling sound.

Calling flocks can be heard more than two miles away.

My wife, a former elementary teacher, compares the sounds to that of a class of third-graders whooping it up on the playground.

Other natural events to watch for in late February and early March:

• The return of the male red wing blackbirds. The males arrive a couple of weeks before the females to establish breeding territories. Listen for their “o-ka-LEE” call.

• Ducks and shorebirds returning to open water areas.

• Bluebirds, killdeer and robins returning.

Check out Bay Area Blooms in next week’s Press Times, where Charlie Frisk takes a look at the skunk cabbage, one of the first plants to arrive in the area.

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