The Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus) just might be the bird that started it all for me, which would be an easy argument to make, considering its beauty alone. Add to that the fact that they migrate all the way from the Arctic to spend the winter in California, and no one would question the inspirational powers of this swan.
It's hard to say when I got started on the path of birding, since my dad gave me Peterson's First Guide to Birds when I was two years old. Weekend trips to the Sierra Nevada mountains for hiking, the central coast for tide-pooling and local wildlife refuges for casual birding were frequent in our household. In high school, I honestly thought everyone knew the difference between a Scrub Jay and a Steller's Jay; I mean, come on, how could you not?! And I was annoyed anytime someone referred to one as a "Blue Jay," since these don't occur on the West Coast.
But it wasn't until just after college that my interest in birds really peaked. During the winter, Eric and I visited one of my childhood stomping grounds, the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. Along the auto tour route, I spotted a flock of large white birds and recognized them immediately: Tundra Swans! I experienced my first "birder's high," that feeling of elation that occurs after seeing a new species or having a particularly incredible wildlife experience. Maybe you can relate.
I was struck with how absolutely mind blowing it is that these birds, these Tundra Swans, travel so far every year, from their breeding grounds in the Arctic all the way here, to the Central Valley of California. I couldn't get over the fact that the birds in front of me hatched in the Arctic, flew all the way to California, and would return to the Arctic in the spring to breed. I was amazed! Every year, these magnificent birds spend the whole winter here, of all places! Right here in my very own Central Valley, the place I've called home my entire life! Never before had I realized how special the Central Valley is, what critical habitat it offers for so many species, including majestic swans. Who knew?!
Now, of course, I know that a very long list of special birds travel great distances to make the Great Central Valley their winter home: Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese and Ross's Geese, Cackling Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese are some of the more obvious species that visit from the Arctic; many duck species also travel quite a ways south to stop here, including Northern Shovelers, Wigeons, Teals, Canvasbacks and Scaups. And let's not forget some of our less flamboyant winter visitors, demur Arctic-nesting shorebirds like Dunlins, Sandpipers and Black-bellied Plovers, all of which also make the long journey south each winter, but rarely make headlines as do the more conspicuous cranes and geese.
Prior to my first Tundra Swan experience, I confess that I thought of the Valley as a rather unremarkable place, a place of pavement and towns that run together along Highway 99, a place of row crops and almonds and cows, a place of summer heat and winter fog, a place one must leave in order to experience good "nature." But never again will I view the Great Central Valley in such a way; now I know the true value of our prairielands and wetlands, and I owe my thanks to the Tundra Swans.
If you too would like to marvel at these majestic migrators, take a trip out to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge; now is the peak season for waterfowl of all kind, and you can expect to see tens of thousands of overwintering birds from the Arctic, including all of the species I mentioned above. And in case you're wondering, an encounter with an enchanting little Black-bellied Plover is no less incredible than one with a Tundra Swan!