Trumpeting a return to Chesapeake With only one mishap, native swans complete flight to old haunts

December 20, 1997|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

LAKES COVE -- Despite a midair collision that nearly turned triumph to tragedy, three trumpeter swans landed beneath a pale winter sun yesterday in Dorchester County, becoming the first of their species to migrate to the Chesapeake Bay in 180 years.

The birds ended their two-day, 103-mile journey as they began it -- in the wake of an ultralight airplane piloted by Canadian biologist Gavin Shire, whom the birds regard as their mother.

"Flying over the bay was great," Shire said after all three birds had safely followed him onto the grassy field between the Honga River and Charles Creek. "We got a tail wind, and we were going 60 miles an hour."

Yesterday's 38-mile leg took 83 minutes. The odd-looking flock flew from Magruders Ferry in Prince George's County across the Chesapeake to Taylors Island on the Eastern Shore and south to Lakes Cove in Dorchester.

Joe Duff, who flew a second ultralight to herd recalcitrant swans, said the birds tried again to turn back early on, just as they had Thursday on the flight from Airlie, Va., to Magruders Ferry. But it was crosswinds at the landing site that gave a fright.

Circling the field to test the winds and be certain it was safe, the fliers were suddenly buffeted by a crosswind. One swan, following the ultralight closely, collided with a wing-support wire and became entangled.

The swan quickly freed itself, but lost altitude. Then it steadied, but its left leg seemed to dangle.

Calling swans

Shire landed his plane, but the swans kept circling. Dropping his helmet, he walked onto the field and began calling to them.

"Come on guys! Come on guys! Hey, hey!" he shouted.

Duff shooed the birds toward a landing, then set his plane down.

"Come on guys!," Shire yelled. He added his swan call, which sounds something like a bleat from a French horn. "Brrrrrt! Brrrrrt!"

The three birds circled again, then buzzed the field. Finally, one landed at Shire's feet. Then a second set down nearby. After minutes that seemed like ages, the last trumpeter -- the one that had collided with the ultralight -- glided in and settled to the ground. Landing on both feet, it appeared uninjured.

Sigh of relief

About 25 scientists, staff and volunteers on hand for the landing breathed a sigh of relief. The swans preened their flight feathers and nibbled in the grass, ignoring the photographers and excitement around them.

"The fascinating thing to me is, these birds are not fazed at all by their migration," said Dr. William Sladen. Physician, zoologist and student of swans for more than 30 years, he is director of Environmental Studies at Airlie, a co-sponsor of the project. Yesterday was his 77th birthday.

Trumpeters are the largest of North American waterfowl. Once common across most of the continent, they were wiped out in the East nearly two centuries ago, mostly by hunters. By the 1930s, only 69 remained in the lower 48 states.

Restoration efforts increased their numbers to 15,630 by 1990, but none, until yesterday, had returned to the Chesapeake.

The guided migration was made possible by "imprinting." Migrating birds regard the first moving object they see and hear after hatching as their mother, teacher and protector.

For these trumpeters, it was Shire and his airplane. The technique was first used by Canadian aviators Bill Lishman and Duff, of Operation Migration, to teach Canada geese to migrate to Airlie and the Carolinas. Their success inspired the feature movie "Fly Away Home."

Return in spring

The swans, named Yo Yo, Isabelle and Sidney, will spend winter here on a 250-year-old farm owned by Bob Ferris, a biologist with Defenders of Wildlife, the project's second sponsor.

In late February or March, Sladen believes, the swans will take off and return on their own to Airlie, retracing the route they learned this week.

Pub Date: 12/20/97

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