Travel: A Winter Visit to the Swans

I’ve written elsewhere about my first trip to see the migrating tundra swans, so I won’t tell you the story all over again. But know that every year I like to zip down to Marysville, CA at least once and witness the glory of many many many birds in one place. It satisfies my need to think nature might be unstoppable, and beauty might be, too. It reminds me of abundance, plenitude, all things in chorus, and just the idea of bounteousness.

This isn’t very many swans, actually, although you can see more in the two fields behind these near trees. At peak, which is when they arrive in November, there are multiple thousands. Also, the bird in the foreground right, slightly whiter than the rest, is an egret. S/he is only pretending to be a swan.

My friend Nancy and I drove down to Marysville on a gray Saturday in early January, having tried and failed to get together several times earlier in the season. We figured even if we only saw two swans, that would be a victory and an adventure. We couldn’t wait for sun, since the flocks leave in mid-January to fly back to wherever their summer range is… Saskatchewan? Northern Montana? We didn’t want to miss them entirely.

Despite how gloomy the photographs seem, we had a wonderful time. There are about 300 birds in the sky in this photo and all were making a lot of noise. The call is kind of a liquid “wurra-wurra-wurra,” and when there are many voices, the sound is deafening. We drove around on a pot-hole filled road, stopping at the verge every now and then to get out, and the minute we appeared from inside the car, swans trundled away from us, sometimes (as here) even lifting off. But after a few minutes they generally reconvened in the water (which is only knee-deep on a swan) and started eating again.

It wasn’t all gray, either. January is the start of spring in California, when everything finally begins to turn green after the dry browns and golds of summer and fall, and the dead look of November and December. This egret (not the same as the earlier one…I think this is a Great Egret and that one was Common) was intent on something in the brambles beside a rice field.

I think it’s important, while on adventures, to do a little trespassing, so we did. This gun club was right beside a large flooded field, and no one was around so we walked over to their gate. We couldn’t help but notice that the gate posts weren’t attached to any fencing, and with only a tiny bit of awkwardness it was possible to walk around the posts and get to the inside of the gate. No muss, no fuss! Then we walked across their parking area and had a great view of the swans. We were not arrested, thank heavens. I should note here that it’s lobbying and other efforts of duck shooters, including members of Ducks Unlimited, that help keep the Pacific Flyway open for all these birds. Along with shooting them, in season, which I pretty much deplore, they do a lot of good in terms of keeping habitat and refuges undeveloped. Also, the farmers are paid to flood their fields: this is not a charitable effort on behalf of wildlife, in case you were thinking so.

The swans get their heads all muddy, dunking to find food. I love how when they’re sitting down you think they could be on a series of vast lakes, but then they stand up to reveal the water is only three inches deep. There are so many illusions all around us, it’s easy to be fooled. Nancy and I drove back and forth for about an hour and then came home, full of the world’s beauty and goofiness, reminded of the strength of its fallow seasons, and buoyed by the exhilarating thunder of hundreds of wings.

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2 thoughts on “Travel: A Winter Visit to the Swans

  1. After watching the swans and egrets and others as I drove through my beloved valley now filled with square boxes mile after mile.
    I had reason to go down to the rice fields and collect feathers for a ritual to honor a friends new business, Wild Swan. We walked around watched the birds, picked up a multitude of white feathers swearing to come back and it never happened.
    Why is it so hard to find time for the things we love?

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