THE first night we slept in our new house we were awakened by a strange sound. At first we thought it was a crowd cheering at a football or baseball game. But not at 2:30 in the morning! The next day we learned that the whooping we had heard was made by the flock of tundra swans that winter in our cove along the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. They come in November. Just when all the leaves have fallen off the trees and everything starts looking bleak, hundreds of these magnificent swans arrive from the Arctic wilderness of Canada known as the tundra. It's been a long trip - just under 5,000 miles which has taken them close to two months to complete.
Swans migrate as families, joining others until a flock of close to a hundred is formed. They fly during both the night and the day, sometimes going for a thousand miles before they stop to rest for a few days. Each year they return to the same area.
For me, its one of the happiest days of the year when they arrive. It's like seeing good friends again. Not that I'll get close enough to touch them. Tundra swans are cautious and wary of people. But I love catching sight of them out the window or on a walk in the neighborhood, hearing their calls, and especially feeding them.
Tundra swans used to feed entirely on the water plants and soft-shelled clams in our area. But as these have become scarce, they are increasingly feeding on corn in nearby fields. A number of people along our cove - Fishing Creek - feed them kernels of whole corn. Our neighbors across the street feed them in the morning and evening and my family has been helping with the morning feedings.
It took a few days for them to trust us. My neighbor, Mr. Lyons, wears the same clothes when he feeds them because they often won't come close if something looks different. We feed them a bucket of corn, casting handfuls out into the water. Because swans have long necks, they can reach far under the water to get the corn. If you make any unusual motion, the canvas-backed ducks who are always the front row at feeding time turn and fly back, sending up an alarm to the others. Sometimes the ducks and swans get so tightly packed during a feeding that you see a duck hopping over the back of a swan.
Usually there are several swans waiting just off the dock at feeding time. When we start throwing the corn, they excitedly call the others. Groups of swans arrive from all sections of the cove until there are close to 75.
If there aren't any swans waiting, you have to call them. Mr. Lyons's swan call is a lot more convincing than mine. I can almost imagine them saying to each other ``What was that strange noise?'' ``Oh, it's that lady again; she thinks that's a swan call.''
WHEN the distant swans get the message that ``breakfast is served,'' the noise of the takeoff
is amazing. They call back and in their effort to get airborne, they flap their wings and start running on the surface of the water. Their large, black, webbed feet move quickly like paddle wheels, slapping the water as they run. Their wings - which when spread are longer than your parents are tall - beat powerfully as they take off.
But it's the landing I like the best. They're so big they remind me of a 747 airplane as they lower their feet like landing gear and put on the brakes. Their feet look just like water skis as they lean back, push against the water, and glide to a stop.
IT'S hard to describe the swans' call. It sounds to me like they are saying ``hoop, hoop,'' but it changes with the situation. Cries which welcome or call the others sound friendly. But often the cry is used to warn.
During a feeding, swans that had been serene a minute before get testy and fights and scoldings break out. Once I saw a family of three swans approach during a feeding and all the others ganged up on them, stretching their necks out along the water, charging and whooping. The three got the message and went somewhere else!
Tundra swans are similar to the mute swans you might see in parks or the zoo. But their necks are straight, instead of curved, and look like periscopes.
Their bills are black and often have a yellow patch close to their eyes. Unlike many other waterfowl, the males and females have the same plumage. The young swans are easier to recognize because they are a lead-gray color which whitens by spring.
K263 is my favorite swan. He seems the most trusting, often bringing the flock closer when we feed them. His identifying collar was put on as part of a research program to trace the migration of tundra swans.
Over 20 years ago an airplane flew into a flock of migrating swans and crashed over Maryland. This prompted many different groups to study swan migration to see how to avoid future incidents. There were other questions, too, which needed to be answered: where tundra swans nest, what routes they take, and what effect oil companies and environmental factors are having on the swan population.
DURING the winter, a group of swans are captured in net or cage as they are feeding on the shore. Then a plastic collar with an identification number is placed on their necks and feet. The collars are designed to slide up and down easily and only last three to four years before they break off. During this time, scientists and volunteers all over the United States and Canada are able to observe the swans' movements without disturbing them.
The collars are color-coded to identify where the swan was banded. The tundra swans in our area have been given black collars with white letters. But relatively few swans are captured for this program. I've only seen four swans with collars in the flock wintering in this cove.
Another neighbor joined the research program in its early days and ``adopted'' several swans, which they tracked over the years. They got postcards telling them where their swans had been sighted.
``Just wanted you to know that F163 made it safely to Wisconsin,'' wrote someone outside Oshkosh. They reported that F163 spent two days there before moving on.
Since ancient times, people have been inspired by swans. You read about them in myths, folklore, and fairy tales - like Hans Christian Andersen's ``The Ugly Duckling'' and ``The Wild Swans.'' You see them portrayed in ballet, theater, sculpture, and art. They are one of the most powerful symbols of beauty and purity. I've always thought of swans as graceful. But what I've come to appreciate the most is their intelligence and power.
We have known only the winter side of the tundra swans' lives, a time when they are sociable and free of responsibility. It's like their summer vacation!
Further north there are hundreds of people who know them as travelers and eagerly await their brief stopovers at staging areas. These people will witness the determination, intelligence, and stamina of the migration process that I've only read about. And in the remote Arctic wilderness a few people - mostly scientists and avid swan enthusiasts - will observe a fiercer, more territorial side of the swan's life as adults mate, nest, hatch, and raise their cygnets.
IN a few days K263 and the other swans will be leaving. It's a sad feeling. But you can sense that they are ready to go. I hope they can sense our affection and awe as we say goodbye. It's someone else's turn now to watch them. But if K263 passes over your house, let us know and tell him we'll be waiting to meet his new ``children'' in the fall!