Frame To Frame – Bob and Jean

A Tundra Swan at Unwin Avenue Bridge in Toronto

A Tundra Swan at Unwin Avenue Bridge in Toronto

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On a recent brilliantly sunny and relatively warm March day, Bob and I visited the Leslie Street Spit for some much-needed fresh air and exercise.  It was on the way home that we made a short stop at the Unwin Avenue bridge here in Toronto and spotted the elusive Tundra Swan.

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At a distance, from the bridge, and even using the binoculars, we had been unsuccessful picking out the telltale yellow lores on any of the swans, but we knew from recent reports by other birders that a Tundra Swan had been hanging about in amongst the Trumpeter Swans and other waterfowl at that location.

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We strolled over to the adjacent small beach and had no success spotting the Tundra Swan, so after completing that routine, back and forth a couple of times, finally we found the Swan right at the shore.

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It helped that a generous lady had arrived at the beach with bags full of cracked corn, and she was laying a heaped trail of the kernels along the length of frozen ice at the edge of the water.  She purposefully tossed handfuls into the shallows to assist the throngs of birds involved in the feeding frenzy.

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All the swans, ducks and geese were crowding ashore for a chance at the bountiful offering.

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Tundra Swans are slightly smaller than Trumpeter Swans, but can be differentiated from the larger swans by the diagnostic yellow mark on either side of their bill, next to the eyes, plus the bill of a Trumpeter Swan is significantly longer and totally black.

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Non-native Mute Swans have an obvious orange bill so there is no mistaking birds of this species for the native Trumpeters and Tundra Swans.

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As this Tundra Swan braved the competition for its fair share of the corn, I got a good look at the serrated edges of its bill.  They look like small, jagged teeth and serve the birds well when foraging for food.  After lifting its head out of the water, this swan dropped a kernel of corn.

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There was quite a bit of commotion in the bay because the Trumpeter and Mute Swans all were disgruntled with the Tundra Swan’s presence.  Numerous times, confrontations took place…

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and in most cases, the Tundra Swan gave way to the other larger swans.  Here, we see the Tundra Swan celebrating its success…

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because in that one instance, it managed to ward off a Mute Swan.  Perhaps its impressive wingspan had intimidated the bully.  Tundra Swans have a wingspan ranging between 66-85 inches (168-215 cm).

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Tundra Swans, like Trumpeter Swans, have a salmon-pink streak running along the mouthline,

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and their plumage is entirely white, but Tundra Swans usually have dark brown eyes.  The Tundra Swan seen by the Unwin Avenue bridge has yellow eyes.  As we looked on, this Swan repeatedly dipped its head below the water’s surface as it scooped up kernels of corn that lay on the pebbled bottom.  It is because Tundra Swans have acquired a taste for corn and grains that they are now regarded by some farmers as pests.

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Usually, Tundra Swans catch and eat a variety of creatures like mollusks, frogs and fish, or pluck aquatic plants, tubers and roots to fulfill their dietary requirements.  This winter, in Ontario and across many regions of the country, brutal temperatures had most rivers and lakes frozen solid, so it was very helpful when concerned citizens provided regular supplies of corn to stave off starvation of great numbers of our waterfowl.

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Tundra Swans in North America originate from one of two populations.  The eastern population breeds along the Arctic Ocean on the coastal plains across the Canadian Arctic into northern Alaska, and the western population spends the summer on the west coast of Alaska.  As their name implies, their breeding habitat is on the tundra.

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In most cases, Tundra Swans overwinter in large flocks along either the Pacific or Atlantic Coast of North America depending on whether they are part of the eastern or western population.  The Swans migrate about 1,862 miles (3,000 km) to reach the coastline, bays and lakes in their respective winter quarters…the Chesapeake Bay and North Carolina region or the coast of California.  As the birds migrate across the continent, they are frequently encountered in fields and on lakes.

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Tundra Swans used to be called Whistling Swans for the sound made by the powerful beating of their wings when in flight.  In fact, Tundra Swans, as a whole, are divided into two separate species, the Bewick’s Swan and the Whistling Swan.  What differentiates the two species is the amount of yellow that shows on their bills with Bewick’s Swans showing significantly more.  This sole Tundra Swan will soon be leaving for its breeding grounds, as the species usually head that way around mid-March.  Between then and now, let’s hope that this Tundra Swan builds up its strength for the long journey.

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Frame To Frame – Bob and Jean