The Swans Have Landed

(12/19/1997) - CRAPO, EASTERN SHORE, MD -- The swans have landed! A small group of magnificent trumpeter swans--the largest waterfowl in North America--successfully completed a 103-mile eperimental migration from Virginia to the Eastern Shore of Maryland at 9:05 a.m. EST today, following an ultralight plane across the Chesapeake Bay.

Three female swans -- YoYo, Sid, and Isabelle, made their flight in view of the nation's capital behind the plane and pilot they treated as a "parent swan" without knowing some people would think they were making history. The flight was the maiden voyage of a project to restore the trumpeter swan to the East Coast after an absence of almost two hundred years.

The Migratory Bird Project, a partnership between Defenders of Wildlife and Environmental Studies at Airlie, undertook the experiment earlier this year by raising and training seven swans hatched at Airlie. They were assisted by Operation Migration of "Fly Away Home" fame in the flight. The trumpeter swans will winter at a farm in Crapo, Maryland managed by Defenders of Wildlife and are expected to return to their takeoff point in Airlie, Virginia in the spring.

Swan supporters are thrilled the birds made such good time in a flight that had been expected to take two to three days with stopovers. The trumpeters lifted off from a cornfield near Warrenton, Virginia into the early morning light on Thursday, crossed the Potomac, made a stopover at Bud's Ferry, stayed overnight at Magruder's Ferry, and resumed their flight again at 7:50 a.m. EST today. Total flight time for the 103 miles from Auburn, Virginia to Crapo, Maryland was just a little over 4.5 hours, making the swans' average speed about 26 mph. "We had the wind at our backs and were able to make good time as soon as the birds clued into the fact that we were on migration," said lead pilot Gavin Shire. "They stuck with me all the way. They were great and the weather was perfect. It was clear visibility and you could see the whole expanse of the Chesapeake Bay below us. The Coast Guard followed below us. It was an incredible sight."

"This is good news at its best. For once wildlife conservationists had the wind at our backs," added Rodger Schlickeisen, President of Defenders of Wildlife. "Our usual work involves trying to prevent losing a species or a habitat. We're too often losing something, but here we're trying to get ahead of the curve by restoring something. We're trying to bring back a magnificent species of wildlife with an important role in the Chesapeake Bay for the benefit of future generations." Defenders of Wildlife also has championed other wildlife restoration projects, notably reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone and other areas.

Schlickeisen and other swan supporters at the Eastern Shore landing site had more than one reason to celebrate the success of the maiden voyage. Although the flight was expected to take longer, the birds fortuitously landed on the 77th birthday of swan expert Dr. William Sladen, Director of Environmental Studies at Airlie.

"This is a happy birthday for me. I am most happy to see these birds arrive safely. I've studied trumpeter swans and tundra swans for more than thirty years and this is the realization of a dream for the restoration of migratory trumpeters on the Eastern Shore," Dr. Sladen said. "The project is the result of a wonderful team we have at Airlie, Defenders of Wildlife, and Operation Migration."

Building on the techniques first used with Canada geese as depicted in the movie "Fly Away Home," The Migratory Bird Project has worked for months this year to raise the swans and plan their journey. The experiment has provided new groundwork for future wildlife migrations. If all goes well, scientists will repeat the experiment on a larger scale with more trumpeter swans in a migration next fall from New York to Maryland.

Today's high-flying swans began as cygnets born at Environmental Studies at Airlie in Warrenton, Virginia, form the core group of the first migration. Separated from their natural parents before hatching, the swans have been imprinted on humans and trained to follow the ultralight. The human-led migration utilized the ultralight migration training techniques pioneered by Bill Lishman of Operation Migration of Canada and Dr. Sladen. Operation Migration assisted The Migratory Bird Project with the flight; pilot Joe Duff flew the second ultralight plane behind Shire.

The trumpeter swan is the largest and, some believe, the most magnificent species of North American waterfowl. Once heard throughout temperate and arctic North America, its melodious "co-ho-co-ho" call disappeared from the Atlantic Flyway soon after European colonization. YoYo, Sid, Isabelle, and other trumpeters hatched in the project still retain some of their adolescent gray coloring, but will turn completely white.

The great white trumpeter swan, with its diagnostic all-black bill, vanished as a result of commercial feather collection, hunting and agricultural conversion of wetlands. (Tundra swans, which winter in the Chesapeake region, also have a black bill but are smaller than the trumpeters.) Trumpeter swans were early victims to fashionable society's need for powder puffs and feathered hats.

Defenders of Wildlife, a leader in wildlife restoration efforts such as reintroduction of the Yellowstone wolf, notes that trumpeters are unlikely to return the eastern seaboard on their own because migration routes are passed from one generation to the next. Restoring an eastern population will ensure the long-term survival of the species because remaining populations in the lower 48 states are vulnerable to such perils as continued loss of wintering habitat. The concentration of wintering flocks at relatively few sites makes them vulnerable to disease. There are no trumpeter swans east of the Great Lakes, where the population is just beginning to migrate.

"The ultimate goal of The Migratory Bird Project is to restore migratory trumpeter swans to the eastern seaboard," says Bob Ferris, Director of Species Conservation at Defenders of Wildlife. "It was thrilling to see the swans fly into the farm for landing today because it was the culmination of the first part of a journey for all of us involved in the experiment as well as for the birds. Geese and other waterfowl immediately gathered around as if to greet the trumpeter swans after their species' long absence from the Eastern Shore."

Citizens can learn more about trumpeter swans and view photos of the magnificent white and gray birds on the worldwide web by checking Defenders of Wildlife's web site.



Cat Lazaroff, (202) 772-3270