The whistling swans arrived on Quantico Creek in Prince William County a bit early this year -- Oct. 25. Ordinarily the first one is not sighted until near Thanksgiving, says Dumfries resident Eileen Thrall, for whom the swans were "a nice surprise" she and her family discovered after they bought their home on Possum Point Road.
The stately birds, pure white with black bills and black webbed feet, arrive in pairs and small groups at first. There are approximately 40 of them there now feeding on the creek, but by January there will be as many as 200, says Thrall.
Quantico Creek, a small Potomac River inlet bordered by Possum Point and Grant Park roads near the historic town of Dumfries, was once a bustling port, according to county records. But poor farming procedures caused the soil to erode, and the creek gradually was filled in with silt and sediments.
Although the loss of the port has helped reduce Dumfries to the sleepy hamlet it is today, the creek has become a favorite feeding, breeding and nesting habitation for dozens of species of wildlife, most of them feathered.
The swans, though, are "our favorites of all the birds," said longtime Possum Road resident Ann King. King and her husband Dan keep accurate records of the swans' arrivals and departures, as well as lists of wildlife spotted from the window of their home.
"We stopped counting at 24 species," she said.
The swans' leavetaking is always within 24 hours of March 19, she said. (March 19 is also the arrival date of the Capistrano swallows.)
"You can always tell when they're planning to fly back up north," King said. "They get very noisy. Swans come in from Neabsco and Potomac, and they gather here and they all stand around and talk it over. It's like they're making plans." The graceful birds are very restless the night before they leave, says King. "You can lay in your bed and hear them all talking at once. It's wonderful."
Then, about sunset of the day of departure, they all lift off at once, flying in a straight line toward their northern home.
The sight is breathtaking, King reports, and it is then that a bystander can hear the reason they are called "whistling" swans. That is the sound the wind makes in their wing feathers as they lift off and when they land.
Their vocal sounds are the least graceful things about them, says another resident, Rusty McBride. "It's sort of a gobble deep in their throats. We never really knew why they didn't whistle." The swans' leavetaking is always sad, she says, although some comfort comes with the knowledge that within a week of the swans' departure, the ospreys will arrive.
Swans are protected by law in most states, and to shoot one is a federal offense punishable by a $500 fine and/or six months in jail. According to Meg Durham, information officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, Utah, Nevada and Montana -- allow swan hunting.
This year, at the request of North Carolina state officials who said that tundra swans (the swans were recently renamed "tundra" swans by the American Ornithological Union, for the northern flatlands where they nest) are too numerous and are harming some crops and shellfish, 1,000 permits to hunt swans have been issued. It is an experimental hunt, Durham says, and each hunter is allowed only one bird.
"There are a lot of swans in the Atlantic Flyway the Atlantic seaboard ," she noted. "Last year we counted 81,000 of them, and they have been increasing."
North Carolina fisheries and farmers have asked the state for a limited hunt, and only about 500 birds are expected to be taken, Durham says.
Unlike their cousins, the mute trumpeter swans of Old World origin, tundra obviously are not a threatened species. Still, says King, she hates to see hunters near the creek. "They make me so nevous," she said. "They could make a mistake."
One hunter did shoot a swan by mistake one year, she remembers, but usually the swans are pretty safe birds. The ducks that live on the creek, in fact, count on that. When the hunters are out in force, said King, "You can see many of the little ducks -- mallards, wood ducks and scaups -- swimming in amongst the swans for protection. It's like they're daring those hunters to shoot them," she said.
Tundra swans nest on the northern slopes of Alaska, east across arctic Canada and on the northeast shore of Hudson Bay and on Baffin Island. Thousands winter in the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River because there is so much open water and the feeding is good. "This is their Florida vacation spot," noted McBride.
According to Phil DuMont, retired chief of the public use division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the swans then migrate to the Niagara River above the falls; some have been known to wash over the falls. "Then they fly over the Finger Lakes region, and from there they make a nonstop flight to this part of the country," he said.
DuMont, an Audubon Society member who still finds great pleasure in bird watching, describes tundra swans as birds of "marvelous beauty." They mate for life, DuMont said, and they lay four to seven eggs at a time, each about four times the size of a hen's egg. At a weight of 12 to 20 pounds (the female is slightly smaller than the male; otherwise the sexes cannot be easily distinguished), they have a wingspread of 72 to 88 inches.