Monday, February 2, 2015

Bird of the Day: Tundra Swans at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Winter in Central California is a special time. We never see the beautiful snow crystals covering the land in a wondrous blanket of white, unless it happens to snow in the mountains and we go up to visit it. And that's fine with me. I have no desire to shovel snow off my driveway!

No, winter is special for a different reason. The tundra and muskeg of northern Canada and Alaska serve as the breeding grounds for an astounding number of migratory birds. During the long days of summer there is plenty of food, and they are adapted to deal more or less successfully with whatever predators are around. But for obvious reasons, the birds and their young don't stick around to see what it's like in the cold dark days of winter.

Instead, they make their way thousands of miles to the south and spend the winter along the Pacific Coast and southwest states. By the hundreds of thousands they spend their days in a string of Central California wildlife refuges including the San Joaquin River and San Luis National Wildlife Refuges near my home base at Modesto. One of the most special to me is the Merced Unit, because in six different visits over the last year, we've never failed to be awed by the number and variety of birds to be found there. Sunday was no exception.

I had already watched the Superbowl ads online, and had no emotional attachment to either team in the big game (unlike some of my Seattle-area relatives; sorry, y'all), and Mrs. Geotripper wistfully noted that she has never seen a wild swan. I thought about it and figured that of all the places we might look, our best chance would be the Merced refuge. It has not let us down yet.

We took a brief drive through the Bear Creek unit of the San Luis NWR where we saw a lot of raptors, but then we drove a few miles more to the Merced NWR auto tour, a six mile gravel road that traverses part of the refuge. A mile in I saw a huge pillow sized "thing" floating in the water off in the distance. After a seemingly long time, it's neck came up and I realized we had found what we were looking for: the Tundra, or Whistling Swan (Cygnus columbianus).
Don't these two look like they are bowing to each other?

After a moment, a second swam into view, and around the next corner we saw half a dozen more.  It occurred to me that we've probably seen them in the past, perhaps missed among the tens of thousands of Snow Geese and Ross's Geese that winter at the refuge. They are beautiful, graceful birds.

1 comment:

  1. I love the blog! I hope you keep going with it. I wish there was a place for me to share with you some of my favorite pics that I have taken. However, no place to download to you. Tis sad.