When I was growing up in Western Pennsylvania, we would listen for Tundra Swans flying over during spring or fall. These birds would generally fly over Pennsylvania between breeding grounds in the Arctic and wintering area along the eastern shore. Here in Washington, it is great that we can easily find this magnificent bird in Skagit County feeding, resting and flying in areas where they are easy to study up close.
Tundra Swans are monogamous and form long-term pair bonds. In North America, they breed across the northern tundra from Alaska through Canada. They winter along both coasts of North America. Young of the year stay with their parents throughout the first winter. You can often tell how successful a pair was by whether one or two young are foraging with them in the fields or flying as a group overhead.
In Washington, they feed in agricultural fields in winter on grain, roots, and tubers and graze on grass. The area west of Interstate 5 from Conway north to Bow and Edison is an excellent place to look for them in winter. I found a number grazing grass in green fields and pulling roots from fallow fields. I was able to park along the road’s edge and watch them feed peacefully. Seeing family groups fly over and land amongst others is a spectacular sight. They fly with their necks stretched out and use their wings to slow themselves down as they come into land.
Trumpeter Swans, a larger species, also winter in this area and are often difficult to tell from Tundra Swans unless they are standing together. Bill and head shape is the best characteristic but difficult to see unless they are close. Some Tundra Swans have a distinguishing yellow dot between the eye and bill. In March, families of both species will start heading back north to breeding grounds.