Margarita Yatsevich shares the experience seeing the beautiful Tundra Swans at Mason Neck State Park.
Tundra Swans in the marsh
On a cold January morning I hiked the Woodmarsh trail that winds through the forest and leads to the Great Marsh next to Mason Neck State Park at the Potomac River. Five wooden bridges cross swamps that after rainstorms could turn into streams! This one mile walk ends at Eagle Point observation shelter from where I could see most of the 250 acre marsh, part of Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge. About half of the marsh is covered with reeds and a stream flows through the middle till it finds its way into the Potomac River. At this time of the year the marsh looks very muddy, devoid of the water plants that cover it in summer.
If you visit, you will be able to see the swans up-close with the aid of a stationary telescope under the roof of the observation shelter. This is what I saw and heard:
All is calm. More than 110 tundra swans appear to be resting. Some of them give out soft calls in soprano tones as if in sleep. They stay motionless with heads nestled against their wings. Some of them are sleeping standing on one foot; the other foot is folded, touching the stomach. A Woodpecker hammers lonely in the distant part of the forest. A duck announces itself with a loud raspy quacking: “quaaa-qua-qua-qua-qua-qua.” The swans continue singing quietly in their sleep. They are not alone. Black ducks are keeping them company and a lonely seagull comes as if to check upon the sleeping swans.
Chilly searching wind rustles dead leaves still holding tight to the oak trees. The sun is trying to penetrate the clouds and succeeds for a little while. In the distant, to the south, the wide Potomac River flows leisurely. Rough swan count – above 200!
Tundra Swans fishing
My afternoon experience tells a different story. The swans are awake and active and loud. They call to one another chaotically in their soprano voices. They swim and fly in small groups from one place to another within their marsh.
Snow-white feathers contrast with black bills and legs. Some of the swans are standing on one foot, others are standing on both feet and still others are lying with their stomachs directly on the mud. Aren’t they cold? Active swans are walking around or swimming.
Swans and Black Ducks
Black Ducks stay in groups around the swans and quack loudly from time to time. Parties of five or six swans fly gracefully from one part of the colony to another.
Their calls are pleasant, soothing. It is so beautiful and serene that I don’t want to leave. Winter has its own beauty. Wintering songbirds sing in the quietness of the forest, maybe longing for warmer months.
My next trip to the marsh, in the early afternoon of late January, I found after a long week of freezing temperatures the whole marsh is frozen solid. It looks like a big skating rink with a strange shape! I was anxious if I will find the Tundra Swans in their usual place.
All was quiet, too quiet. Have all swans gone away? I have always wondered what they would do if the marsh froze, since they are coming from the frigid tundra to escape the cold and the ice.
Tundra Swans and the icy marsh
I went to search for them with the telescope. I was hoping to see them, so at least I could try. I saw a few clustered white specs in the distance right in front of me. When I looked through the lenses theses white specs turned out to be the tops of piers painted in white.
Then I turned the telescope to the right, where the Potomac River flows. What a relief! There they were, divided in three groups of 7, 15 and a little over 50. They should have been many more, but probably the reeds next to them were hiding the rest. Most of the visible swans were lying directly on the ice that bordered the river. They appeared to be sleeping since their heads were nestled against their wings. Only a few were standing. The Tundra Swans had the company: many black ducks and several Canada geese. It is marvelous how all these different species stay together.
Right in front of the resting waterfowl a dozen of what looked like Scaup ducks was putting on a show. They were diving and were popping out in the frigid waters of the Potomac River. They did this over and over again. It was amazing to watch them as their white bellies glistened in the sun.
Belmont Bay in winter at Mason Neck State Park
Mason Neck State Park is located in Northern Virginia about 20 miles from Washington D.C. The park offers an extensive variety of programming, hiking and biking trails, watercraft rentals, picnic area and visitor center.