If field conditions are just right, there can be as many as 15,000 tundra swans gathered at one time in the flooded wetlands behind the Lambton Heritage Museum in rural Grand Bend. The museum's Return of the Swan festival celebrates the annual migration of the birds from the Eastern U.S. Seaboard to the Canadian Arctic. The Grand Bend area is one of the first stops on the 6,000-kilometre round-trip journey.

Grab your binoculars! Beauty of the tundra swan on display
in fields behind Lambton Heritage Museum in Grand Bend

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The mellow, high-pitched hoo-hoo-hoo call, signalling the tundra swan has returned, is music to the ears of winter-weary residents of southwestern Ontario. In these parts, especially around Grand Bend, the majestic bird is living proof that spring, the season of rebirth that prognosticating gophers can only hint at — is truly in the air.  

Already, all eyes are scanning the horizon for a glimpse of the first swans as they migrate north from their wintering grounds on Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern U.S. Seaboard. The birds, whose sound is similar to the Canada Goose, fly in a V-shaped wedge in family groups of six or seven. Their internal GPS is set for Ontario, specifically a staging area behind the Lambton Heritage Museum in rural Grand Bend, one of the first stops on their 6,000-kilometre round-trip journey to the Canadian Arctic.  

It’s here, on the flooded fields known locally as the Thedford Bog — the remnants of old Lake Smith, before it was drained for farming — that thousands of swans glide in for a rest and to feed on the stubble of last year’s corn and bean crop. The museum marks the birds’ return with a festival that invites visitors to view and photograph the swans before coming inside to learn more about them. Most years, interpreters from Pinery Provincial Park, located across the road, are in the field to answer questions.  

The Return of the Swan festival, now till April 3, also coincides with the museum’s Paint Ontario Art Exhibition and Sale, which “celebrates the work of representational artists and the beauty of the province of Ontario, including the Great Lakes shorelines.” Paper craft activities for children are also on tap.  

“When the swans are on the bog, especially thousands at a time, it’s an amazing sight,” Gwen Watson, the festival’s co-ordinator, tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “They fly back and forth across the road and you can hear them — it’s a joy just to watch them in action.”  

If field conditions are just right — lots of flood water so the birds can rest and have plenty to eat — there can be as many as 15,000 tundra swans gathered in one sitting. While the swans can begin their return to the Arctic any time between the end of February and the end of March, depending on weather conditions, Watson says a tough winter in the Grand Bend area will likely keep the swans away until later this month.

24-hour express flight to Grand Bend

According to the Friends of Pinery Park, the express route from Chesapeake Bay to the staging area takes about 24 hours. The tundra — smaller than the trumpeter swan but with a wing span of up to 210 centimetres — reaches flying speeds of up to 80 km/h, with altitudes ranging from 450 metres during the day and up to 3,000 metres at night.  

Once the swans arrive in the Grand Bend area, they will stay for anywhere from three days to two weeks, again depending on the weather and the field conditions. And while the Return of the Swan festival has an official start and end date to all the festivities, the swans keep their own schedule. Two years ago, they showed up late, with only a few days left in the official festival.  

Once back in the Arctic for nesting, the female swan will lay four or five eggs in late May. The newborn tundra swan, which won’t receive its full white plumage until the second summer, sports a dusk grey colour until it’s full-grown. The chicks must be ready to fly by the time they’re 11 weeks old, so they can make the return trip back to Chesapeake Bay for the winter. The long journey begins in the late September.  

You can plan your tundra swan-viewing trip to the Grand Bend area by visiting the website returnoftheswans.com, which will be tracking the swans’ progress once the migration is underway. The Lambton Heritage Museum, located just south of the village of Grand Bend on Highway 21, is open seven days a week in March, from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 or seniors and students, and $3 for children, or $15 per family.  

Other swan viewing areas

The tundra swan can also be seen in spring along Lake Erie at Long Point Provincial Park, the 40-kilometre-long sandy peninsula that is an important stopover for migrating birds, as well as at Rondeau Provincial, which celebrates the swans’ return with the Wings of Spring Festival March 19-20 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.  

Hosted by the Friends of Rondeau, the tundra swan is the star of the show, but there is also a bird of prey show, local artisans, bird-house building and barbecue. All activities are free with entrance to the park, which is located in Chatham-Kent across from the village of Erieau. Admission for the first 25 cars to enter each day will be paid by the Rondeau Bay Waterfowler’s Association.  

MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — March 2011