southwestern Ontario

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.

Nesting Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes are large birds, 4 feet in height with a wingspan of 6 to 7 feet.  The head is white with a bright red cap, the beak is black.  The body is predominantly grey but the reddish-brown hue they often take on comes from the mud they use to preen their feathers.  They winter in the southern United States, Mexico and Cuba and come north to breed.  Sandhill Cranes can live for 20 years or more.  These images were taken in southwestern Ontario over 4 days from April 30 to May 3, 2016.

Sandhill Cranes mate for life and they stay with their mates year round.  Their habitat is freshwater wetlands, marshes and river basins.  The nest is large, built in watery areas, and constructed from reeds.   Two eggs are what's normally laid; sometimes there's just one, but rarely three.

Both parents take care of the nest, and both sit on the eggs.  The male is always close by, scanning the environment.  The eggs take 28-32 days to hatch.

Watching the eggs.

The first chick is born.  It is able to stand and move around almost immediately.

Checking the newborn and watching the second egg.

Resting in amongst the mother's back feathers while she sits on the second egg waiting for it to hatch.

And now there are two...

Proud parents

A Canada Goose wandered by and stayed for some time.  The parents remained relaxed and unalarmed which meant the goose posed no threat to them or the chicks.  At other times, when birds flew overhead or noises alerted the cranes, they became extremely alert and very vocal.

Hovering over the chicks while the other adult looks on.

The cranes have now left the nest, the parents moving their chicks to new places, where they'll start them on their journey to independence.  The chicks are able to survive alone from the age of two months, but usually remain with their parents for about nine months, migrating south with them in the fall.  Around two they will start looking for a mate of their own and will start breeding anywhere from the age of two to seven. 

Sandhill Cranes are beautiful, majestic birds.  It has been a great pleasure watching them over the past four days and I'll be looking for them again next spring.