Tundra swans are a treat for those lucky enough to catch their migration north | TribLIVE.com
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Mary Ann Thomas

They can arrive like a snowstorm and disappear just as fast.

A swatch of migrating tundra swans will continue to captivate those lucky enough to see them on local lakes and rivers as they head to their breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra. They will move through the region for the rest of month, according to local residents following and reporting on the elegant long-necked long-distance flyers.

Steve Gosser, a photographer from New Kensington, recently followed some of the birds to Moraine State Park in Butler. There are other reports in the region as well.

But recent sightings can’t touch the “fallout” of swans, when a dense fog hit the region in November 1971 and forced an estimated 30,000 tundra swans to land on the Allegheny River from Brady’s Bend to Pittsburgh, according to estimates from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, referenced in a 1972 issue of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania “Bulletin.”

Paul Hess of Harrison, a former Valley News Dispatch editor, was on hand for the historic fallout. A member of the Three Rivers Birding Club, Hess is an author whose writings on birds have been published locally and nationally.

Hess was a news reporter in 1971 for what was then the Valley Daily News and couldn’t go out to see the swans because he was working on deadline earlier in the day, although the paper did send a photographer to document the historic event, he said.

“Western Pennsylvania is in the migration route of this species, and they had to come all down at once,” Hess said. “Nobody had ever seen anything like that.”

Hess estimates the fog temporarily grounded one-tenth of the North American population of the swans.

After Hess met his newspaper deadline, he and managing editor Robert Tench drove out to Washington Township.

“We ran out to Beaver Run Reservoir. We figured they might be there,” Hess said.

Sure enough, they counted 1,200 swans.

Although the 1971 fallout was atypical, it illustrates that bad weather grounds the birds. And, given the snowstorm systems in late winter, it might explain why most people don’t see the birds.

“You have to go out in bad weather, when they are put down by a bad weather front,” Hess explained.

Even if they show up, they usually aren’t there long — a day at most, according to Hess.

For most residents, they will hear them flying at night with calls comparable to a high-pitched dog. They can be seen migrating during the daytime as well, flying in large V-shaped flocks, according to Hess.

The swans are unmistakable. They are larger and snow white compared to the typical Canada geese that fly in similar formations.

For information on recent birds sightings, such as tundra swans, visit the PA birdlist.

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