Braving spring storms is the only way Tundra Swans, and sometimes people, can catch up with old friends.
(Listen to the radio version here.)
I drove down to Champaign, Illinois, on April Fool’s Day weekend for a get-together with my closest three friends from college. As the date should have warned us, it was a foolish time of year for a gathering down in tornado alley. But as it happened, it was also the ideal weekend for splendid get-togethers, avian as well as human.
I left Duluth on Thursday at 12:30 pm. The snow in my own yard was still well over a foot deep, and still over 3 feet in the drifts or where we’d shoveled it onto piles. I didn’t see any bare ground in the woods or fields all the way down to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Beyond there, bare spots started popping up here and there, and by the time I reached Baraboo, there were just a few small patches of snow. No trees were starting to bud yet. I spent the night in Baraboo with a good friend from high school.
The first bird I saw as I got out of the car was a robin, which was also the first bird I heard through the window as I woke up on Friday. I left Baraboo about 8:30 am with plenty of time to stop by Madison Audubon’s Goose Pond. The wind hadn’t picked up yet, and as I turned from Kampen Road onto Goose Pond Road, I started hearing Tundra Swans through my closed car windows even before I could see the huge birds out on the water. I pulled over right next to the eastern pond and opened my car window, thrilled beyond measure at the swan music. Back when Russ and I lived in Madison in the 1970s, I managed to get to Goose Pond at the peak of swan migration several times, and since we moved to Duluth I’ve managed to see swans there many times during migration, but it’s been four decades since I’ve lucked into seeing so many. I counted at least 700 on the east pond, many near my car, and another 100 across the road on the west pond. And oh—that sound!!
I so wished I’d brought my good stereo sound recorder, but instead, I took a video with my cell phone. I edited some of the wind sounds out and cut the end, where a car passed, to make a 2’ 45” sound recording that I used as background for this episode’s podcast. I took a lot of photos and videos, but somehow, my circuitry is more triggered by sound than sight, especially when 800 swans are catching up with friends and relatives in such a happenin’ place.
The bulk of Tundra Swans that migrate through Wisconsin and Minnesota winter on the Chesapeake Bay and breed in far northern Canada. I saw lots on my Alaska trip last June, all on the Nome part of the tour.
Few if any of them had ever passed through the Midwest—the Alaska birds mostly winter in and migrate through the western U.S.
Whether they belong to the Eastern or Western populations, Tundra Swans migrate in family groups, but there’s lots of mixing it up when migratory flocks gather at a place like Goose Pond. Many widowed and young birds find new mates over the winter, but some are still looking, and so many encounters with relatives and former neighbors almost certainly mean there’s a lot of catching up. No one knows what their animated conversations are about, but that’s part of the fun and joy in listening in.
It was 44º F when I left Baraboo, but the temperature rose more than 30º throughout the morning and early afternoon. Being part of a spring weather system, the direness of the weather forecast rose with the temperature, but I wasn’t paying attention until I was well beyond the Illinois state line, basking in the glow of that lovely swan encounter. But suddenly my phone’s GPS app interrupted my reverie with an alert that I was headed into bad weather and might want to take an alternate route. I chuckled to myself—although it was overcast, not a single raindrop had fallen. But 15 minutes later, my phone alerted me again, so I turned on the radio and found a college station out of Peoria. Within a minute, the local announcer broke in with a weather update about a severe thunderstorm approaching Peoria. I may be from Chicago but my knowledge of Illinois geography is shaky—I had no idea where I was relative to Peoria. When I passed a Peoria exit sign, I could have been 5 miles from town or 100. And right about then, the announcer was updating the weather announcement—this was a tornado warning, and everyone in Peoria should immediately take shelter. No matter where I was relative to Peoria, he said the tornado watch affected the entire listening area. His voice was getting increasingly shaky, and around the time I reached Bloomington, he got off the air to take shelter.
Still not a raindrop for me, and traffic was fairly heavy, with plenty of semi-tractor trailer trucks going blithely along. I’ve always figured that professional drivers know more than me, and I had no clue where to take shelter anyway, so I kept going. It didn’t start to drizzle until the moment I pulled into the driveway where the four of us would be staying.
I’d maybe not have felt quite so sanguine about semis staying on the road had I known how many of them would be overturned that day and night on nearby Interstate 74, but it was reunion time! Kathie, from northwestern Illinois, and Karen, from southern Illinois, were already there when I got there, and Bev, from Kentucky not far from Cincinnati, pulled into the driveway right behind me.
The last time all four of us were together was in 1993—almost 30 years ago—though I’ve seen each of them at least a few times since then. It’s possible some of the swans I saw and heard were older than 30—the oldest banded Tundra Swan on record was seen alive and well when it was a minimum of 25 years 4 months old, and unbanded swans have certainly lived as long or longer. Here we were, all four of us 70 or 71, all of us still married to the same people we’d been dating back when we lived in the dorm together.
It felt so good to be together again, though the day’s dire weather turned out to be much more than an abstraction. Tornadoes touched down extremely close to both Kathie’s and Karen’s houses, their husbands hunkering down, one in a basement under his workbench, the other in the storm cellar. Meanwhile, Russ up in Duluth was shoveling. In Champaign, we had a little rain and a lot of wind.
Coming together with lifelong friends is satisfying at a soul-deep level. We didn’t do much over the weekend—just walked around campus a bit on Saturday, ate at restaurants Kathie’s son had recommended, and played hearts as if we were back in the dorm. We laughed a lot, and talked and talked, like those Tundra Swans catching up on all their news.
With the longest drive, I was first to leave on Sunday morning. I’m not good at good-byes, and as usual, I cried when I took off, but the four of us being together even for just a weekend felt so good. I of course stopped at Goose Pond in early afternoon on the way home. There were still about 100 swans, but like our little Fourple, they were going their separate ways toward their own homes again. Spring weather can be crazy, but braving it is sometimes the only way we can catch up with loved ones.