Whistling Swans on Sachem Pond

Fri, 12/23/2016 - 12:45pm

On a chilly, Dec. 7 morning, Maggie Komosinski and I waited for the rain to stop and give way to a leaden sky of clouds before heading out in search of an odd-looking goose that we had seen – but not identified – the day before. We traipsed through field and dune and pond edge. We wended through deer-paths of Phragmites and bayberry and Rosa rugosa

We surveyed from many angles trying to see into every cove and curve of Middle Pond. Looking at a pond for birds is a life lesson: at first glance the entirety of the pond may be seen as a beautiful landscape, but sparsely inhabited; however, with careful probing and peering around corners, many treasures are revealed. 

First, it was a garden statue of a great blue heron that lifted off its pedestal and slowly flew to the far end of the pond. Then the scudding buffleheads gave movement to the pond as they fled. Black ducks and mallards floated and maneuvered around the edges, nearly invisible in the low light, until we looked for the source of ripples on the water. 

Once positioned where we could see the northern most lobe of the pond undetected, we watched stiff-tailed ruddy ducks floating in small rafts. We watched hooded mergansers gliding effortlessly. We heard, and then saw, a pair of mute swans drift down and splash onto the water’s surface. 

Among all the gentle activity of the pond, we studied the intense efforts of a duck that we were having trouble identifying. This bird was regularly swimming in circles near the ruddys and other dabbling ducks, but, in the limited light of the morning, colors were hard to discern and identification came slowly. 

Eventually, Maggie and I agreed that this day’s puzzle was a gadwall, but it was not the goose-like bird we had come in search of. That has remained a mystery.

As we walked out of the enchanted land of Middle Pond, and as the morning sky of flannel gray was being replaced by billows of white and portholes of sun, we talked of checking Sachem Pond for the odd-looking goose. Serendipity being what it is, we were greeted at the road by fellow bird watcher Heather Hatfield, who — swinging by Sachem as a reward for her post — transfer station chore — reported having just seen tundra swans. 

Wow, tundra swans! There were many swans in the southeastern quarter of Sachem Pond, easily seen from Corn Neck Road: 10 mute swans, and ten tundra swans. And so, with a phone call to other fellow observers, Cathy Joyce and Nigel Grindley — birders with cameras — we finished what was already a wonderful morning of birding, with delight.

Writing in 1925, Edward Howe Forbush describes the whistling swan, also known as tundra swan, in “Birds of Massachusetts, and Other New England States:”

“To an ornithologist there is no more thrilling sound than the high double or triple note of the leader of a flock of swans and no more thrilling sight than that of the flock far up in the azure heights, their long necks stretched toward the pole, their glistening white plumage catching the rosy rays of the rising sun as they sweep grandly onward in V-shaped flock formation toward their home in the Arctic wilds. In New England we rarely see or hear them now. Once they were abundant in migration along our coasts... During the last five years I have attempted to collect sight records of the passage of these birds, but the task is complicated by the fact that there are at large a few park swans of the European Mute species which are seen frequently at various points.”

Tundra swans are considered the most numerous swans in North America. At one time, this swan was more generally known as whistling swan, a name given by Meriwether Lewis because of the whistling sound coming from their wings as they descend. Now, whistling swan is considered to be the American race of the tundra swan, whereas Bewick’s swan (rare visitor to western North America) is the Eurasian race of tundra swan.

As the name implies, tundras breed in the far Arctic, along lakes, rivers and marshlands. Whistling swans then migrate through central Canada and the United States to their west coast wintering grounds in the U.S. Northwest and northern California; or, to their east coast wintering sites of the Chesapeake Bay areas of Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, and as far south as South Carolina.

Today, tundra swans are rare visitors to Block Island, and usually are reported as individuals or pairs, not in large groups, which makes this mid-December visitation a true rarity. On the island we are more likely to see the non-migratory, introduced, non-native mute swan species. But this has not always been so.

Elizabeth Dickens’ journals are a daily recording of her — and occasionally others’ — bird sightings on Block Island from 1912 to 1963. The journals are organized by calendar day, and each volume generally covers five years. The first volume contains the years 1912 through 1916. Thus, it is of special interest to note that for the days Dec. 27 and 28, Miss Dickens had penned in additional notations for 1911. 

Dec. 27: “Whistling swan — 1, seen in Kent swamp by E.D.”

Dec. 28: “Whistling swan — 1, shot by Lycurgus Negus.”

Elizabeth Dickens records whistling swans throughout her decades-long journal entries, but rarely more than one at a sighting. Such is the case in the following report made by her nearly 100 years to the day of our December 7, 2016 observation.

Dec. 3, 1916: “Horned grebe — one, loon — 60, H. Gull — 50, Gannet — 30, Canada Goose — 1, whistling swan — 1, W.W. Scoter — 300, Amer. Scoter — 25, R.B. Merganser — 50, Bittern — 1, H. Lark — 2, Goldfinch — 2, Meadowlark — 15, Song — 8.”

As a community we are incredibly lucky to have the legacy of Elizabeth Dickens’ bird observations from a century ago. Her daily bird lists, together with her writing, and the exquisite natural history narrative of ornithologists such as E. H. Forbush, and adventurers such as Meriwether Lewis, allow us to observe birds in the present and in the past. When we read of Lewis’ naming of the wild American swan, or of Forbush’s description “of the flock far up in the azure heights,” or of Elizabeth Dickens’ statements that she saw a whistling swan in Kent Swamp (a swamp, that in 2016, has long since eroded over the bluff), we learn that their contributions are more than scientific notation. These descriptions add to our knowledge of time, and place, and our human connection within the earthly web of bird, and sky, and swamp.

A day — or an hour — spent making a bird list is more important than the list of observed species. The knowledge gained actually comes with placing that recorded data in context of time, and place, and human interaction. It is in the time afield together, and in the retelling of the storied adventure, that we gather information about a place, insight about ourselves, and wisdom about our connection to nature. 

To learn more about tundra swans, check out these sources, which were used in the research for this article:

Elizabeth Dickens Journals, 1912-1963, housed at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island; “Birds of Massachusetts and Other N.E. States,” Edward Howe Forbush, 1925; “The Sibley Guide to Birds,” David Allen Sibley, 2000; https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Tundra_Swan/lifehistory

16th Annual Community Bird Census

The Community Bird Census is an annual Ocean View Foundation event on Monday, Dec. 26 (traditionally the day that Elizabeth Dickens led the Christmas Bird Counts). This event encourages all who are interested in birds and enjoy the beauty of the Island to spend part of the day keeping track of the birds they see. The short-term result of the day’s observations is the compilation of an island-wide bird list comprised of the sightings of many citizen scientists. In the long term, these annual bird counts continue the work of Elizabeth Dickens and contribute to a much larger body of information.

All levels of participation are encouraged, from watching your bird feeder to traipsing the island. For details about Community Bird Census, see the schedule below. 

Feel free to participate as much or as little as you would like.

1. Meet at 9 a.m. at Sachem Pond, where a spotting scope will be available for some early morning swan and duck watching, and join with others to make a plan for a day of birding.

2. Bird Walk led by Kim Gaffett at a location determined at 9 a.m. based on wind and weather.

3. During the middle of the day, participants will employ whatever means desirable to make a list of birds seen that day. The options for making these observations range from taking one or more walks to watching your bird feeder from the warmth of your house.

4. At 5 p.m., congregate at the Old Island Pub to compare notes, to compile the community list, and to revel in the stories of the day.

Anyone wishing to call in his or her Block Island observations may call Kim Gaffett at 466-2224 or email kimgaffett@gmail.com.