Flocks of Tundra Swans

by Pam Ruatto

Flocks of Tundra Swans migrate from the coast of Eastern North Carolina up to the North Slope of Alaska every year, leaving the farm fields that surround the wildlife preserves—as you can see when you track their flight paths on Google Earth—in late February through early March.

Makes more sense that they should be hanging out in the wildlife sanctuaries and preserves than in the surrounding farm fields, I would have thought, but people who study the birds say that the swan’s habits are changing, and surmise that they may be ditching the food of the wetlands in preference for the abundant farm-raised grain and corn.

The swans that make it up to Kuparuk and back travel a route very similar to the commute my husband Marty takes. His work up at the oil fields has him flying from Asheville to Atlanta, then to Detroit or Minneapolis, followed by a straight shot to Anchorage for an overnight stay at the luxurious Puffin Inn. A Boeing 737 takes him, along with a bunch of other Slope workers, from Anchorage to the Deadhorse airport on the North Slope the next morning, where they scatter to the three main oil fields of Alpine, Kuparuk, and Prudhoe Bay. Marty then takes the half-hour bus ride to the Kuparuk drill site for a total commute time of about twenty-two hours, if all goes well.

The swans fly further to get to the same place, and on their own steam, of course. Their path takes them from the waters of North Carolina to Michigan, with a straight shot across Canada to reach their breeding grounds near the Beaufort Sea. It’s a total commute time of roughly sixty days, for those that survive.

To follow the swans on Google Earth is to forget about the man-made maps and flight paths for a moment. I unclick “show cities” and all such naming apparatus of Google Earth to watch the virtual globe as it might look from the birds’ perspective —a beautiful arc of nameless and un-bordered topography.

These large white swans are often mistaken for the better-known Trumpeters, but in fact they are smaller and have other distinguishing characteristics, such as the distinctive teardrop-shaped slice of yellow at the top of their beaks. The Trumpeters stop short of the Tundra Swans’ more northern migrations into Canada and Alaska, where the great birds will feed off the tundra grasses and claim the Arctic thaw lakes and ponds as their breeding grounds.

The calls of the two species are also quite different. Anyone who has ever heard a flock of Trumpeters will recognize the elementary school band sound, while Tundra Swans sound more like what most of us think of as geese—a cawing cry that can be likened to whoops and barks rather than musical instruments.

I know all this in part from what Marty has told me, of course. And he got most of what he knows from the latest live entertainment offering on the North Slope.

Life is so confining for the workers up there that they are, like soldiers in wartime, appreciative of any kind of entertainment they can get. They have a small movie theater that plays mostly crummy movies anymore, Marty says, but in the heyday of the place, on the boom side of the boom and bust cycle of the industry, they used to bring up live entertainment in the form of comedians—C grade artists like Amen Sven, who entertained in a fur robe and Nordic helmet, with an exaggerated Swedish accent, his jokes involving large breasted women and clumsy men, and always ending with the refrain, which the audience in the little theater was expected to call out after each joke like a responsorial in church, Amen Sven! And he was funny, Marty says, however ridiculous. Even the women who worked up there laughed.

But now they get only the occasional biologists doing studies on one kind of wildlife or another to come to these theaters at the drill sites and give talks. Last time Marty was at work, there was a talk from a biologist on the particular flock of Tundra Swans that returns to Kuparuk year after year. He’d looked forward to this for weeks and told me about it immediately afterwards, recounting everything he could think of that the guy had said. I got on the web page for the Tundra Swan study, which provided a link to Google Earth that showed the migration route of the swans that were at Kuparuk that day, and I followed as he talked, like the long-distance student of the North Slope that I am.

The swans lay their eggs in May, working as a team in the constant daylight of the summer months to tend their nests and protect their cygnets. It is rare for a predator—mostly in the form of an Arctic fox or an eagle—to win against the ferocity of these parents, who spread their wings and aggress on the creature, their prominent wing-bones flapping like hammers, and in fact as strong as such. This much Marty has seen in driving around the slope, and has sent me photos of—two adult birds side by side with an Arctic fox in its summer brown phase trotting back and forth in the worried hope of finding a loophole in their defense shield, afraid to get too close.

The swans leave the North Slope with their cygnets in late September—the young ones more vulnerable to an early frost than they ever were to predators.

Those who survive will make it down to the coast of North Carolina in late fall to grow up and await the return trip to the North Slope in the spring. They’ll mate for life in their second year and take the same migration route as their parents, going to and from the North Slope for the rest of their lives.

We will drive down to the coast and see the swans in their winter grounds someday. It would be nice to go while Marty’s still working his Slope rotation and making that commute himself.  Of the large flock that will start out from North Carolina, only thirty or so will make it as far as Kuparuk, the rest stopping just east of there, closer to the Inupiat village of Nuiqsit and to the Prudhoe and Alpine oilfields. But because they are banded and tracked, we might be able to tell, if we can find them at all and get close enough, which ones are the Kuparuk swans. It would mean getting the timing just so, being there on the right day within that window between late February and early March to see our swans take off. And then Marty would be back on the slope to watch them set up housekeeping in May.

Note: oil company funding for the Tundra Swan studies has dried up since I wrote this, but the flight path can be roughly seen by going to Google Earth and typing Eastern North Carolina in the “fly to” line. Once you’re located there, type the word Kuparuk over Eastern North Carolina to make the virtual trip.

Pam Ruatto has been an illustrator for some twenty years, working mostly with the tourism and food industries. She began writing prose after moving to Asheville from Alaska, taking a series of classes from Peggy Millin, followed by ongoing Great Smokies classes, and getting her first piece published in 2004. She’s been immersed in a memoir for the past several years, set mostly in southern California, Asheville, and Alaska, but also in Las Vegas, Florida, Chicago, a commune in western Washington, and Panama.