A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

By the time a tundra swan makes it to northeastern North Carolina in the fall, it has flown some 3,000 miles, in a great diagonal slash, from the Arctic barrens

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

By the time a tundra swan makes it to northeastern North Carolina in the fall, it has flown some 3,000 miles, in a great diagonal slash, from the Arctic barrens

A Swan Song

Tundro swans flying over the water

By the time a tundra swan makes it to northeastern North Carolina in the fall, it has flown some 3,000 miles, in a great diagonal slash, from the Arctic barrens down the breadth of Canada. The birds then wing across Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. A few stop along the Great Lakes marshes, but most fly nonstop all the way to Chesapeake Bay, where they gather by the hundreds, and then the thousands, and then the tens of thousands. When they lift off from those fields and brackish shallows, their ultimate destination is in mind: North Carolina, where some three-quarters of the entire eastern continent’s tundra swans put down roots until the lengthening hours of early spring beckon them back northward.

And they take a bit of North Carolina wherever they roam. The Rocky Mountains have their grizzlies. Alaska has its moose. Florida its silver king, the tarpon. Iconic species all, the very sight of which strikes awe in those lucky enough — or hardworking enough — to find themselves in encounter with such creatures.

In North Carolina, we have the magnificent tundra swan, a sort of modern-day gryphon, although there is nothing mythic about Cygnus columbianus. It is as real as a cold January wind sweeping across Pamlico Sound, as present as a full moon in a blue winter sky. If ever a creature deserved the appellation “charismatic megafauna,” the tundra swan is it.

Tundra swans in the Currituck Sound in North Carolina

The shallow lake at the heart of Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge — as well as the marshes and cypress trees that surround it — is a favorite gathering place for tundra swans, snow geese, and ducks. photograph by Joesboy/iStock/Getty Images Plus

I have seen these birds winging singly over duck blinds in the Currituck Sound salt marsh. I’ve seen them in undulating skeins, opals against the sky, above the wild waters of eastern North Carolina — Pungo and Mattamuskeet and Phelps lakes, the Alligator River, Currituck Sound. I’ve watched them while huddled in muddy farm ditches as far inland as Nash County. Once, while writing about nesting gyrfalcons along the soaring cliffs of Alaska’s Seward Peninsula, I camped along a remote river where breeding swans nested in hummocks of reed and sedge, their pearlescent forms dotting the tundra. I wondered if I’d ever seen those very same birds in the air over my distant North Carolina home.

But no matter where the encounter takes place, never have I seen them when their presence — their calls, their silhouettes, their shimmering flocks — failed to root me in place and give wing to my own flights of imagination. Tundra swans are a gift from wild places we might only dream of, a feathered testament to the connectivity that still binds our world.

• • •

Wild is drawn to wild. This is a refrain for those creatures who need the largest expanses of the natural world to thrive, and so it is for tundra swans. Here, the birds flock to some of the least-trammeled environs left in the Old North State.

In the Coastal Plain, nine national wildlife refuges sprawl across more than 350,000 acres, interspersed with dense private forests and agricultural fields that lie fallow in winter. The landscape is a smorgasbord of marsh and shallow brackish waters and harvested fields of grain, attracting one of the world’s greatest collections of long-distance migrants.

Two tundra swans flying low over the water

Tundra swans gravitate towards marsh environments with plenty of water and minimal human presence. photograph by Jared Lloyd

Tundra swans come, flock after flock. At their peak, some 65,000 to 75,000 tundra swans spend the winter in northeastern North Carolina. There are other swans known in the region. The larger trumpeter swans are almost exclusively found in the Midwest and West, but a handful wander to our state. Mute swans are non-native to North Carolina and nonmigratory, but they’re occasionally seen. Larger than tundra swans, they sport an orange bill, an easy way to sort them out from the tundra swan’s nearly all-black bill.

And what of the whistling swan, a bird that bewitched Meriwether Lewis near the narrows of the Columbia River? Their calls, he wrote in 1806, “cannot be justly immetated by the sound of letters nor do I know any sounds with which a comparison would be pertinent. It begins with a kind of whistleing sound and terminates in a round full note …” This is the selfsame bird that settles into North Carolina each autumn. The tundra swan was once known as the “whistling swan,” and occasional references call it that still.

Gaggle of tundra swans

Appearing in eastern North Carolina by the thousands, tundra swans are quickly recognizable with their smaller frames and black bills. photograph by Todd Pusser

On their breeding grounds, tundra swans must defend their nests against all manner of predators: Wolves and bears. Golden eagles and glaucous gulls. Jaegers and ravens. Compared to such a fraught summer, a North Carolina winter is Easy Street for the swans. Predators are few, and the birds’ only job is to eat, replenishing the body fat lost during migration and fueling the return to their breeding grounds. The swans descend like white curtains into soybean and grain fields to feed on the leftovers from harvest. In shoreline marshes, they eat sedges and grasses. In shallow ponds and impoundments, they stomp their large, webbed feet to stir up snails, clams, and insects.

And in the air, they adorn a blue sky in skeins and chevrons that herald the season. When there are tundra swans in the Tar Heel State, the breath of Boreas will soon be felt on every bare cheek.

• • •

Of all the places to see tundra swans in North Carolina, few are as evocative and totemic as Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. The eponymous, oval-shaped lake, 14 miles long and five miles wide, is set like a jewel near the end of the 3,200-square-mile Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula. The largest natural freshwater lake in the state, Mattamuskeet is ringed with marsh and cypress trees, and is shallow enough to walk across. Swans show up on the lake and its associated impoundments by the ones and twos and twenties and hundreds. Thousands roost and feed there after their southward migration. It is a meeting of the primordial and the primeval — ancient drawn to ancient — as the massive birds set their wings to glide into their wintering grounds.

At Mattamuskeet, the swans feed in the shallows around cypress trees etched in silhouette against the low sun. It’s a scene that draws photographers and birders from around the world. Footpaths and vehicle trails allow visitors to plumb deep into the marshes and close to the shore, where the swans dabble and preen.

Birdwatcher looks for tundra swans from the observation deck at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

At Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, the North Pond Wildlife Trail leads to an observation deck where thousands of tundra swans and other wintering waterfowl can be seen during peak migration. photograph by Chris Hannant

But it is in flight when they are at their most impressive. Their wings beat to a rhythm written in the Miocene. Their “gondoliering legs,” as described by the poet Marianne Moore, trail behind them. If you are downwind of a winging swan, you might hear it five minutes before you see it, its voice carried in the air like a Gregorian chant from a distant valley. If you are upwind of one, the breeze might carry its cries away, and the sight of a swan suddenly in view can stop the heart — or at least give it a jolt.

In ancient days, it was believed that a swan sang but once in a lifetime, to herald its death. That’s the origin of the phrase “swan song.” But Socrates and Plato had clearly never been to Pungo Lake, or Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, or the Waterlily community on Currituck Sound, where the tundra swans sing often and long and loudly and unforgettably.

• • •

No matter the species, the swan’s snow white form, its grace in the air, and its proclivity toward mating for life have served as fodder for poets and artists for centuries. Virgil was called the “Swan of Mantua.” Shakespeare the “Swan of Avon.”

In one ancient Greek myth, Phaethon, son of Helios, drives his father’s chariot too close to Earth, drying up rivers and burning mountains. To prevent further destruction, Zeus hits him with a lightning bolt, and he falls into the River Eridanus. His distraught friend Cycnus grieves by the riverside and is turned into a swan. For displaying such love and sacrifice, the gods place the image of Cycnus in the sky — this is the constellation Cygnus, the beloved Swan of the Northern sky, whose outstretched wings and neck in turn form the Northern Cross.

In another Greek myth, Zeus becomes smitten with Leda, the beautiful daughter of the king of Pleuronians. He takes the form of a swan and seduces the young princess. Leonardo da Vinci sketched his version of the scene, and Michelangelo and Rubens painted it.

In more modern times, the poet William Butler Yeats wrote of swans, lauding their soaring flights:

The wings half spread for flight,
The breast thrust out in pride
Whether to play, or to ride
Those winds that clamour of approaching night.

But I’m not sure that any poet nor painter nor muse of the ancients can add much to the enchantment of watching a flock of tundra swans on the wing. The pure science of the sight beggars the imagination. That a bird fully six feet wide and four feet long can clock thousands of miles in flight, catty-corner across our continent, is a testament to the stunning intricacies of animal migration. And to the tundra swan’s own fortitude in getting from A to NC, and back to the Arctic again.

Overhead, the first birds in the V-shaped formation bear the brunt of wind resistance; over time, others move forward to relieve them of the burden. But there’s more going on in a V of swans than birds taking turns to be leader. During flight, a swan with its beating wings creates a pocket of disturbed air, a turbulence that spirals down and then upward behind and to the side of each wing. The bird behind and to the side lines up its own wingtip to catch this rising vortex, timing its wingbeats to save energy and propel itself more easily.

The swan behind it does the same, as does the swan behind it. This “formation flight” creates the distinctive V-shaped echelon of migrants, each aiding its comrades in flight. Each swan shares the burden of its migratory flight with all the others in the flock. No one is without a helpmeet, be it the bird in front, behind, above, or below. No one is on this journey alone.

Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno. One for all, all for one. It’s a lovely way to look at a flock of swans winging overhead. As if the sight of a tundra swan in flight needed any additional adornment at all.

This story was published on Apr 29, 2024

T. Edward Nickens

Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual and The Last Wild Road: Adventures and Essays from a Sporting Life. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.