Tundra Swans

Tundra Swan Migration 2018

The annual Tundra Spring Migration is just about over.  The swans left their winter home in Chesapeake Bay and started arriving here at the end of February.  This is the first stop on their journey to the Arctic.  They land in the wet farmers' fields where they can find food and rest up for the next stage of their journey.  Large groups of swans have been in the area for the past three weeks.  They're also in Aylmer, at a wildlife sanctuary where food and water are both available.


Unlike other years this time the light has been excellent, with blue skies, patches of cloud, and soft golden evening light rendering the swans even more beautiful.


They tend to fly in groups and can be heard long before they're seen.   Watching a large group of tundra swans flying overhead is an amazing sight.


These are large birds, almost 5 feet in length with a wingspan of 5-1/2 feet.  Males weigh in at 7.5 kg and females a little less at 6.3 kg.  They take their time in choosing a mate but once chosen they pair for life.


This group is taking off for the next stage of the journey west and north.


They're active on the water, interacting with each other, moving around, making loud sounds.  They run across the water as they prepare to fly from one section of the pond to another.  


Despite being large birds they land easily and elegantly, although sometimes nearby swans and geese get swamped.  Here three swans land among a group of resting swans and geese, and startle a dark morph snow goose into flight.  The goose flew a few feet away and quickly settled back down.


When the birds come in for landing they brace their legs, lower their rear ends, skim across the water for several yards leaving visible trails, and slowly retract their wings as they prepare for a resting position on the water.  The settling of the wings occurs gracefully over several seconds.


Several swans landing in the middle of a large group already on the water


A family of four arriving late in the day and getting ready to land.  The two younger birds, the ones with brown heads, were born in the Arctic last year and are undertaking their first migration north.  They remain with their parents for at least one full migration.


This year's migration is coming to a close.  As always I've enjoyed seeing and photographing these strong, beautiful birds.  I wish them well on the journey to their Arctic breeding grounds and look forward to seeing them again next year.


The Light is Everything

I've been photographing for a few years now, and I like to think my images have improved. But it wasn't until I started focusing more on the quality of the light that I could see a real difference.  Prior to that I'd tend to go out with my camera during the middle of the day, the mornings and evenings usually taken up with other things.  And the images reflected that.  Many were not interesting.  The light often harsh, hot, or simply not there.  It became clear:  The Light is Everything.

Photography is important to me, a creative outlet that's quickly becoming a passion.  And if I wanted to get better I'd have to pay more attention to the light.  So I made the commitment but it wasn't easy.  Light is something special - I think of it as a gift - and it's not always there.  Weather patterns shift, clouds come in where none were expected, it rains or is overcast for what seems like weeks, and this winter has been one of the greyest I can remember.  The lake didn't freeze, there was little snow, blue sky was a distant memory, and the wonderful soft winter palette of pinks and blues was mostly absent.  And when it does make an appearance it doesn't stay for long.  It's elusive and challenging.  But when you are there at the right time, and you're able to get the shot you've visualized, it is exciting.

A winter shot of a few bleak trees at the edge of Lake Huron.  Nothing much to look at most of the time, but when the light hit them late one afternoon they put on a show.

A group of farm buildings in Lambton Shores.  Again, not much to look at in the harsh light of day, but late in the afternoon they seem to sparkle.  And those old silos right beside that brand new wind turbine tell a story.

Good light often partners with bad weather.  Just before or after a storm front passes through the sky can be striking, with good contrast, dark clouds, and slivers of light.  It's a good time to be out photographing.  But, as always, those peak moments are fleeting.

Last November I hoped to get some pictures of the Supermoon.  The sky was clear that night and it looked promising.  Along with a photographer friend we set up in a field at a spot where, using the Ephemeris app, we'd calculated the moon to rise just to the left of the large silo.

But our calculations were off by a touch, and that beautiful moon rose just a bit further to the right and not over the silo and farm buildings.  An error of a few degrees makes a big difference.  Some scrambling and fast running to get the best shot possible under the circumstances.  I did get the Supermoon, just not where I expected it.

The next morning in Grand Bend.  That amazing moon setting exactly where Ephemeris said it would.  And that light on the lighthouse is from the rising sun.  Light is the magic sauce that makes the difference.


A shot of the Assiniboine in the Sarnia Harbour, taken just as the sun broke through on a cloudy day.  The light hit the ship and the colours popped.

Two similar images taken on the same day, 16 minutes apart.  The sun broke through the clouds and lit up the buildings, creating a completely different look and mood.

A picture of Sarnia's Chemical Valley, taken at dusk.  Dark, moody, and mysterious.

An oil tanker, the Algoma HANSA, in dock on the St. Clair River.  The sun caught the side of the ship just before sunset.  I think of these scenes as beautiful industrial landscapes.

Another industrial landscape, this one taken in Hamilton at the end of February when the harbour still had a thin coating of ice on it.  Large storage containers, tugboats, and reflections in the water.  Industrial for sure, perhaps not appealing to everyone, but for me it definitely works.

I'll close this post with a Tundra Swan coming in for a landing.  Taken late in the afternoon it wasn't quite "last light" but the blue sky rendered the water a colour that contrasted nicely with the bright white of the swan's feathers, and the shadows provided detail.

It is harder to get out when the light is right.  And that light is changing all the time.  It's also brief, the time of day when the light is at its best is incredibly short.  But good light makes for better images and that's what I'm after.  So I'll continue to be out there, chasing the light and seeing what I can do with it.  The light is everything.

Tundra Swan Migration 2017

It's late winter, early spring and the Tundra Swans (also known as Whistling Swans) are migrating once more from their winter home in Chesapeake Bay north to their breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic, a journey of more than 3,000 km.  A stop on their migration path is close by and seeing these magnificent birds is something I look forward to each year. There are approximately 160,000 birds that make up this Eastern Migration.

They are large birds, 4 to 4-1/2 feet long, with wingspans of 5-1/2 to 6 feet.  They fly in groups, in the usual V-formation, with birds joining along the way.  When one or two leave a staging area, getting ready for the next leg of the journey, others join in.

They come in to this area over a period of 25 days on average, depending on the weather conditions.  The full journey going north will take them 85 days.  (The return journey south takes longer,  averaging 101 days, because they have their young with them.)  Tundra Swans spend 51% of their lives in migration.  On this first longer stop they remain for some time, resting, eating, and getting ready for the next leg of their journey which will take them to North Dakota and Southern Manitoba.


These Canada Geese look small when swimming alongside the Tundra Swans.

The swans tend to stay together in groups, either the family group, or groups of younger, same sex birds.  The younger birds can be identified by the brown colouring on their necks and undercarriage; the darker the brown shading the younger the bird.  A bird is fully mature and ready to mate when it is 4 to 5 years old.

Parents and last year's cygnet in flight.  The family stays together for one full migration year.  And previous offspring will often remain close to the family group in the Arctic nesting areas.  


A younger bird getting ready to land.  They are so graceful in flight but less so as they prepare for a landing, angling their bodies downwards and using their feet as brakes on the surface of the water or the ground.  

A group of swans leaving for the next leg of the journey

Tundra Swans mate for life.  When mature the 4-5 year old males will start looking around for a mate.  The male does the courting and the female does the choosing.  The males start strutting their stuff, showing their feathers, looking strong and powerful.  The females take note.  And this goes on for some time.

A male swan engaged in his courtship dance.  He may have selected a particular female he's interested in and this display is for her.  If she's interested she will give a slight nod of her head.  But that doesn't mean it's a done deal.  There's a lot more dancing and nodding over several days before the female makes a definite choice.  It's a big decision as they will remain together for the rest of their lives.  And Tundra Swans live for about 20 years.  If one partner dies it will be several years before the survivor takes another mate, if at all. 

Getting out and seeing these birds is a joy.  Their migration through this area is nearly over but I'm hoping for one more visit next week, ideally with better light and a more interesting sky to showcase their strength, beauty and grace.  If not, there's always next year.

Migrating Tundra Swans

Tundra Swans in Western Ontario is a sure sign of Spring.  Each year thousands of these large, magnificent swans make the 4,000 mile journey from Chesapeake Bay to their summer home in the Arctic.   They stop twice to feed and rest on their northern migration - in Western Ontario and then in the north of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.  The migration occurs over three to four weeks in late winter and early spring.   The journey is hard and according to the National Geographic only the strong will survive.

Tundra Swan in Flight

Tundra Swan in Flight

Resting After after a Long Journey

Resting After after a Long Journey

These swans are large, with a wing span of more than six feet.  They are also known as whistling swans for the sounds they make.  They can be heard long before they're seen.

The swans with brown colouring on their heads and neck are last year's young. They remain with their parents for the first full year of their life and one complete migration cycle.  

A family of four tundra swans.  The parents are at the front and rear and the two born last summer are in the middle.