Photographing Tundra Swans

by Dr. Robert Berdan
May 1, 2013


Tundra swans in flight over Frank Lake, Alberta by Robert Berdan ©


Tundra swans taking flight at Frank lake in southern Alberta in late March.

Tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) fly through Alberta on their way to the arctic between about mid March to the end of April. They often stop over for a week or two to feed and that is when I try to get out and capture them with my camera.

It's usually still pretty cold in Alberta at this time of year, but with a good pair of boots and gloves I head out to one of the many sloughs and ponds which are just starting to melt. One of my favourite locations is Frank Lake south of Calgary, but the Ghost reservoir and several smaller ponds next to highway 1 at the Sibbald Creek turnoff have also proven to be good locations. If you are heading into Canmore, tundra swans can also be spotted along the Bow river and Lac des Arcs next to the highway though they are often difficult to get close to.

Tundra swans gather on Frank Lake, Alberta by Robert Berdan ©


Thousands of ducks and swans gather at Frank Lake south of Calgary in late March - photographed from next to
the highway using a 300 mm f/2.8 lens and 1.5X teleconverter.

Tundra swans are large, long-necked, all-white birds with black beaks. They appear similar to Trumpeter swans which are less numerous. Tundra swans have a distinct yellow patch in front of each eye, though its difficult to see unless you are close enough or have a set of binoculars. Their voice is high pitched yodelling whoo whoo mixed with garbles and barking. Listen to the sound of the Tundra swan on CornellLab of Ornithology. In Autumn they return from the Arctic but spend much less time in Alberta on their way to their winter grounds.

Tundra swans on ice by Robert Berdan ©


Tundra swans settle on frozen Frank Lake south of Calgary in late March.

Research studies on the migration of Tundra swans reveal their are two populations that migrate to the arctic in the Spring that include an eastern and a western population. The eastern population travels through southern Ontario, while the Western population travels through Alberta and Saskatchewan. Spring migration occurs at a more leisurely pace with most of the birds arriving on their breeding grounds in the arctic between mid May and mid June. The birds then leave to fly south between the end of August and end of September. I have watched the tundra swans fly south in early September at Point Lake in the North West Territories in their typical V formation.

Tundra swans on ice showing their yellow eye patch by Robert Berdan ©


Close up of tundra swans reveals their yellow eye patches

Female tundra swans are called Pens and are slightly smaller then the males called Cobs. The young are called cygnets. Males and females usually mate for life or until one dies. They can live up to 24 years though their normal lifespan is about 10 years. Healthy adults have few predators to contend with except hunters and on their breeding grounds the arctic fox and weasels. The birds are very aggressive when minding their nest which can contain between 2-7 eggs, but normally 3-5. The eggs hatch in about 30-32 days and the young cygnets grow faster then swans in warmer climates. The young fledge in 60-75 days and reach sexual maturity after 3-4 years. In 1990, their population was estimated to be about 190,000 in North America. The main source of tundra swan mortality is hunting which takes about 4,000 birds legally and it's estimated that 6,000-10,000 birds are killed by poaching or by native subsistence hunters. Lead poisoning by ingestion of lead gun shot is also a significant cause of mortality in some areas.

Tundra swan with green band by Robert Berdan ©

Group of Tundra swans on the melting ice on the Bow Reservoir (Ghost Lake). The Green collar indicates it is a Tundra Swan as they are usually fitted with red, green or yellow collars whereas Trumpeter swans rare usually fitted with , gray, black and blue collars (Trumpeter swan society). All observations of marked swans can be reported to the USGS Bird Banding Lab. The Bird Banding Lab has an online form (http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/BBL/homepage/recwobnd.cfm) for individuals to report a banded bird.

Tundra swans taking flight off Ghost Lake, AB by Robert Berdan ©


When this group of tundra swans spotted me hiding behind some bushes they took to the air. Ghost Reservoir in March.



Tundra swans taking flight by Robert Berdan ©


Pair of Tundra swans taking off from ponds near Exshaw, AB .



Yellow eye patch on Tundra swan by Robert Berdan ©


A close up of the birds head reveals the yellow eye patch confirming its identity as a tundra swan.


Diet and Feeding Habits


Tundra swans feed on aquatic plants including mannagrass, pondweeds and marine eelgrass. They not only extend their heads down but also use their strong legs and sharp claws on their large, webbed feet to dig up underwater vegetation. They also eat the seeds and young shoots of cultivated grains such as corn and wheat. Occasionally they will also eat aquatic beetles, dragon flies and worms.


Tundra swan by David Lilly ©


Tundra swan above showing the yellow eye patch - photo courtesy of David Lilly - visit his web site
http://www.canadianbirdphotographer.ca to view more bird photographs.


Trumpeter swan by Robert Berdan ©


Trumpeter swans lack the yellow eye patch and are slightly larger in size


Tundra swans flying over prairies by Robert Berdan ©


Tundra swans flying north in spring at sunrise against a dark stormy sky east of Calgary.



Tundra swans in flight near Mossleigh, AB by Robert Berdan ©


Tundra swans flying near f Mossleigh, Alberta in April


Tundra swans in slough south of Calgary, AB by Robert Berdan ©


Tundra swans in shallow ponds south of Calgary in April


Tundra swan in V formation by Robert Berdan ©


Tundra swans flying in V formation


Geese, ducks, swans and other migratory birds fly in V formation so that each bird can achieve a reduction in wind drag and save up to 65% of the energy required to fly and increase their range up to 71%. Another reason is to maintain visual contact and facilitate communication among the birds which is also why flying in V formation is commonly adopted by military aircraft (Scientific American).


Tundra swans take flight by Robert Berdan ©


Tundra swans taking flight off Ghost lake. I made a series of flight photographs using a Nikon D300, 300 mm f/2.8 VRI lens shooting at 8 frames per second. This is when I first came to realize the benefits of having vibration reduction, autofocus and a high burst rate. Most of the photos in this series were tack sharp.


Tundra swan trio by Robert Berdan ©


Three tundra swans take flight near Exshaw, Alberta.


Tips for Photographing Tundra Swans


Timing is the single most important factor in being successful capturing these birds with your camera as these birds only come through the province for a few weeks each Spring, I have rarely encountered them in the fall. The best time in my experience is between mid March and the end of April. Small lakes and sloughs south and east of Calgary seem to offer the best opportunities. One morning, when driving east of the city I spotted dozens of V shaped flocks of tundra swans many of them flying low to the ground in the early morning. To capture the birds in flight I recommend using a camera with five or more frames per second along with a 300mm or longer telephoto lens. When approaching a pond with the birds next to the road some times I can get close if I stay in my car and photograph from the window as they seem to tolerate cars more then they do people. When they do take flight they don't lift off as explosively as ducks and often have to run on the water for a short distance before becoming airborne. They always take off into the wind so this can help you line up your camera. They are one of the most beautiful birds on the prairies and I look forward to photographing them each spring. RB


LInks to External Resources




Dr. Wayne Lynch (1999) Wild Birds Across the Prairies. Random House ISBN 1-894004-21-3


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