I arrived at the lake at Cape May lighthouse before sunrise. The temperature was well below freezing and the glass shard wind lashed at any exposed skin that it could find. I trudged along the path of frozen snow that wrapped around the black lake, occasionally grabbing my breath as the crust gave way, plunging my foot deep into the snow with crunch. The frozen lake was dotted with a huge flock of Canada geese and a few Mute swans. I kept walking until I approached the second lake behind the sand dunes. These brackish lakes, also frozen, were speckled with ducks and Swans, but not all of the swans were mute. As clouds started to brighten and the world turned from black to grey I could make out the unmistakable shape of the Tundra Swan.
There are three species of Swan living wild in North America; The invasive Mute swan which was introduced from Europe, the massive native Trumpeter swan and the numerous Tundra Swan. The Tundra swan is classified as the same species as Europe’s Bewick swan. A few Bewick swans overwinter in the United Kingdom but, despite visiting areas where they can be found, I have not been able to see them in the wild. This made my encounter with Tundra swans on a frozen lake in New Jersey, USA so special.
As darkness lifted the swans stirred to life. One by one they began the process restarting their frozen bodies. I was treated to a wonderful display, as the each swan stretched itself in to angel shapes as it pumped warm blood from its core into its icy wings. Standing on tip toes to work blood into the legs and feet the swans allowed their wings to beat fast enough to lift the weight off their feet but not fast enough to lift their feet from the ice. It was a majestic show by one of the planets most graceful inhabitants.
A small porthole was open where some mute swans had roosted and kept it ice free. A Tundra swan waddled over and flopped into the icy plunge pool for a morning dip. The water was too cold to stay in for long, meaning the swan was faced with the prospect of having to haul itself back out onto the ice. I felt for this most elegant of birds as it dragged itself out of the water in a rather undignified manner. No matter though, a quick shake and a wing beat, and magnificence was restored.
As the name suggests, the Tundra swan is well used to living a life in the freezer. These birds breed in the Arctic Circle, in Alaska and the north of Canada. To avoid the brutal winter months they migrate south but only as far as the northern states of the United States and the Southern Canadian provinces. The birds migrate in spectacular flocks of up to 100 birds, made up of family groups. This is a sight that I would love to witness. The parent birds stay with their offspring through the southern and northern migration before separating.
Whilst the Tundra swan is the smallest of the North American swans it is still a mighty bird at a length of almost 1.5 meters (57 inches) and a wingspan of over 1.5 meters (66 inches).
I’ll head back to Cape May this winter in search of my angels from the north. It is relatively easy to find a variety of swans species on ornamental lakes around the world, but there is something magnificent about seeing such awesome birds in their natural habitat, shrugging off all that Mother Nature throws at them.
I still want to see Europe’s Tundra swan, the Bewick, and someday I hope to complete my North American swan encounters with the mighty Trumpeter.
Join the conversation below. Have you encountered Tundra Swans? Where did you see them and where can I see a huge flock? Maybe you can tell me where to see their Bewick cousins in the UK? 👇👇👇
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