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Swans On The Move

Thursday April 3, 2014

A flock of great white tundra swans fly overhead.

These Wah-pee-soo, (Cree for swan) are easy to spot with a large body and long neck. They are majestic as they move through the air under the power of their great wings. In the north it is rare for us to spot these beautiful and graceful birds during the spring migration. I am amazed as I watch this group of birds landing on a farmer’s field here in southern Ontario.
They join a greater flock of hundreds of other tundra swans as they noisily gather and collect the waste corn from last fall.

It is early spring on the north shore of Lake Erie near Long Point, Ont., and much of the snow has melted. However, with the arrival of these large birds, the ground looks snow covered with so many white plumed swans waddling on the farm fields. The sight of so many white birds covering up the land with their plumage reminds me of what my dad and many Elders described up north during the spring goose hunt. Back in earlier times snow geese were so numerous in the north that when they arrived in the spring along the James Bay coast, these birds covered the land to make it look like winter again.

The sight of so many swans here these days is strange to me. On the James Bay coast, I remember spending my time on the land with my family during the spring goose hunt in late April and early May. It was normal for us to sit and watch hundreds of Canada geese and snow geese fly over our blinds on their way north. At the height of the migration, on some special days when the sun shone warm on the land and there was no sign of coming cold weather, thousands of geese would line the horizon as they followed the shoreline of James Bay on their way to northern nesting sites.

During these hunting trips on the land, it was rare to see swans. To most hunters they were an unusual bird that few people preferred to hunt. They didn’t taste the same as geese and it seemed almost sacrilegious to kill them due to the fact they were so rare. We had plenty of geese to feed our families so to most hunters, swans were too unusual to add to a catch of geese.

When I first saw Wah-pee-soo during my time here near Long Point, I thought it was odd to see a flock of these birds flying in a group. I have only ever spotted them in pairs as swans are famous for being monogamous birds that stick to their partners for life.

In the springtime, Long Point becomes a very important destination for bird watchers and day tourists. I didn’t discover until this year that Long Point is actually one of the most important staging areas for migrating tundra swans in North America.

These majestic birds leave North Carolina in February to fly north to their eventual nesting areas in the summer in the northern Prairie provinces of Canada. Once these great birds start their trip, they are capable of flying a total distance of roughly 1,000 to 1,450 kilometres in a short period. Their first stop and half way point from North Carolina is along the coast of Lake Erie and one of their most important meetings areas at Long Point. They have a stopover here for up to two weeks as they replenish themselves with meals on the rich farm lands that holds waste grains and wetlands full of nutrient rich food. They fly as a group as they move north and at one of the more important gathering spots at Long Point and the north shore of Lake Erie, thousands of these birds gather here in one of the most amazing displays of animal migrations in the world.

Once they have replenished themselves for the next half of their trip, they migrate a further 1,500 kilometers northwest to the northern parts of the Prairie provinces to their nesting grounds. As they find their personal areas, they will eventually disperse to their own territories and fly in smaller groups or as pairs. As they move further away from the Great Lakes, they no longer fly as large groups of migrating birds. On their traditional flight north they stop in favourite places to nest. Some travel to the coast of Hudson Bay and a few make it alongside migrating flocks of Canada geese to James Bay.

These many Wah-pee-soo have made the last few days so exciting for me. They have reminded me of the magical bond that exists between we Cree and birds like the goose, swan and eagle.
Tonight I drove on a road that wound through hundreds of these Wah-pee-soo and I honked my horn in rapid bursts to let them know I was around. Passing motorists must have wondered at my honking but I like to think that the great white swans all around me took it as a gentle greeting from this crazy Cree of the James Bay lowlands.

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