Whistle Stop

By Tyrone Burke

Majestic tundra swans headliners as birds flock to Ontario

Thousands strong and honking like mad, migrating tundra swans make certain everyone knows when they’re about to glide into town for their annual appearance at the Aylmer Wildlife Management Area. It’s utter cacophony.

Roam Ontario Tundra Swans

“Nobody around Aylmer minds the noise, though,”
Keith Malcolm tells me. As a member of the Elgin Stewardship Council, Malcolm has been helping visitors better understand the
swans for the past 14 years.


“Around here, the arrival of the tundra swans means that spring has come. They’re much better judges of the season change than we are. We know that they’ll get here whenever the spring does.”

The giant avian’s elegant aesthetics surely don’t engender much resentment among the locals either. These are some of the most majestic birds on this continent, and perhaps in the entire world. Plumed brilliant white with yellow- trimmed, jet-black beaks, the tallest tundra swans can stand nearly 1.5 metres tall, with a wingspan that is greater still. The swans are a force of nature.

“When a tundra swan comes in to land, it’s about the most graceful thing you’ll ever see,” says Malcolm. “They’ve got these giant wings, and when their enormous feet come down, it’s almost like landing gear. They look like they’re going to water ski on to the pond.”

Roam Ontario: Tundra SwansNicknamed the whistling swan, these birds earned their moniker not from their call – a repetitive, vaguely nasal and somewhat annoying honking sound – but from the sound of their wings batting powerfully through the air. Stretched fully, they span more than two metres, and are powerful enough to make their own wind. Their ability to create such force serves them well; tundra swans complete an annual migration that tops 6,000 kilometres, round-trip.

“We count up to 60,000 swans here some years,” adds Malcolm. “other years as few as 40,000. You can never be sure how many will be around on any given day, so we set up a telephone line so people can call and check how many are there on any given day.” (519-773-SWAN)

The most unique thing about viewing the tundra swans in Aylmer is the chance to get really close to the birds without scaring them. “We have a wheelchair accessible blind that lets people get within  just a few metres of them,” Malcolm says. “It’s a great spot for photographers, we even had someone in from National Geographic a few years back. ”

Roam Ontario: Long Point Aerial ShotFurther along the Lake Erie shoreline, Long Point juts east into the lake near the tiny town of Port Rowan. The rolling sand dunes and gnarled hardwoods of Long Point form the longest freshwater sand spit on earth. Seen from the air, the enormous sandy peninsula resembles an outstretched finger scratching at a cloudless sky. But what really makes this place special is its wildlife, and it isn’t just tundra swans.

Smack in the middle of one of the most heavily developed regions of the country, Long Point is an oasis for the animals of the Carolinian forest ecosystem. Today there are deer, ducks, and foxes living peacefully on the peninsula, unfettered by the suburban and agricultural development that has felled so much of southern Ontario’s forests.

Long Point has a storied history, but in the 1860s a group of southwestern Ontario businessmen banded together to form The Long Point Company. The group bought the land from the government for less than $10,000 and privatized it. In doing so they turned Long Point into their own private hunting domain.

Roam Ontario: Piping PloverThe club may have excluded the public, but their domain was a sanctuary in which wildlife thrived. In 1960, North America’s first bird observatory was established here. In 1978, the international significance of Long Point was recognized by UNeSCo when it was awarded the distinction of being named a world biosphere reserve.

Its particular importance lies in the fact that many migratory birds using the Atlantic flyway pass over Lake Erie, and when they do, this narrow spit is the first piece of land they see. Tired from their journey they stop here, making Long Point one of the richest birding areas anywhere on the continent.

Three quarters of all migratory bird species that fly through Ontario have been spotted in Long Point’s dunes, marshes and forests. Among these more than 300 species are a significant number of including the beach- dwelling piping plover, and the prothonotary warbler, a tiny, tawny songbird.

Today, much of the peninsula remains off limits, but not all of it. Just past a causeway that crosses wetlands to link the sandy peninsula with the north shore of the lake is Long Point Provincial Park. Its beaches and wetlands allow you to catch a glimpse of birds as majestic as a bald eagle or as tiny as a plover, but if it happens to be springtime, you just might get lucky and stumble upon some tundra swans.

Where the Birds Are

Long Point and the Aylmer Wildlife Management area are both great places to spot tundra swans, but Ontario is full of great birding spots. Grab your binoculars and check them out!

  • Presqu’ile Provincial Park juts into Lake Ontario near Brighton. Over 300 species have been spotted here, many of them migratory birds stopping over for some rest during their long migrations. www.ontarioparks.com/english/pres.html

  • Near Kingston, Amherst Island offers up the opportunity to spot a wide variety of birds, including the Northern Saw-whet owl. This species is so tiny that the owls can fit inside a teacup. loyalisttownship.ca/discover-tourism-birdwatching


  • Pelee Island, the southernmost tip of Canada, is one of the richest birding areas anywhere on the continent. Join experienced guides on morning, afternoon and evening hikes as diverse songbirds flock to the region throughout the first three weeks of May including 42 of the 55 known warbler species in the continent. friendsofpointpelee.com/festivalofbirds-home
  • The sheer cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment are prime territory for hawks and falcons, and in April of each year the town of Grimsby celebrates it with Raptorfest, which honours and educates on these most majestic of birds. tinyurl.com/ax6wpku


Tyrone Burke has also been known to migrate south for the winter. He is a contributing editor with Canadian Geographic, and is currently based in Ottawa.