November 27, 2018

They’re Back! Tundra Swans Return to
Spend the Holidays on Hatteras Island


Islanders travelling along N.C. Highway 12 on Pea Island have likely noticed a lot more white - and a lot more noise – in the past several weeks.

This increase in activity is due to the mass return of the tundra swans, which are part-time residents of coastal North Carolina when the temperatures start to drop, and the wintertime rolls around.

“We’ve been seeing them a little earlier this year,” said Becky Bartel Harrison, Supervisory Wildlife Biologist for the Alligator River and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuges. “It’s been a strange year, weather wise, but we finally got a little cold snap, and that seemed to bring more in. There’s certainly plenty to look at right now.”

Per Harrison, Tundra swans breed and nest on arctic tundra habitat, and are only observed in the U.S. during migration periods, and in the winter months. Eastern North Carolina provides wintering habitat for an average of 70,000 tundra swans, or roughly 65-70% of the entire eastern tundra swan population.

“Last year, we detected more than 1,700 tundra swans [on Pea Island] during peak activity periods in late-November,” said Harrison. “They can be seen in all the ponds feeding on the submerged aquatic vegetation.” 

“It’s the perfect time of year to visit Pea Island to see waterfowl, [and] we encourage folks to explore the wildlife trails at North Pond or Salt Flats, or check out the new observation platform at South Pond.”

The reason why tundra swans spend the holidays on Hatteras Island is simple – it’s convenient, and there are plenty of places to eat and relax.

Migration is physically and energetically demanding for the swans, and our local wintering habitats, (including and especially the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge), are valuable feeding and resting areas for numerous species.

The first tundra swans tend to arrive in early November, and increase in numbers as the winter progresses. At Pea Island, they can be seen on the impoundments at North Pond, New Field, and South Pond, which are all great areas to watch other wintering waterfowl as well. Harrison reports that 23 species of waterfowl were identified in 2017, with more than 38,000 individuals being documented during the maximum peak observation day.

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, which is located on the Dare County mainland, is also a great place to see large groups of tundra swans and dabbling ducks like Northern pintails, green-winged teal, and gadwall. In 2017, more than 2,200 tundra swans were observed in this region during the maximum peak observation period in late December, particularly in the farm fields and flooded moist soil units where they feed on soybeans, rice, and winter wheat.

Biologists at the refuges regularly document waterfowl migration activities through ground and aerial surveys. Though the numbers haven’t officially rolled in for the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge for 2018 just yet, a recent survey conducted at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge documented more than 3,400 tundra swans, which is already a substantial increase over 2017.

And as anyone cruising through Pea Island can attest, the distant squawking and sea of white indicates that there are plenty of tundra swans on Hatteras Island this year as well.

Next week, biologists with the refuge will also conduct swan productivity surveys to count family units to help better understand breeding and nesting success rates.

The tundra swans will continue to be monitored all winter long, (along with other waterfowl species), until their extended Hatteras Island vacation is over, and they begin migrating north again in the early spring.

Where to See Them Up Close:

A good starting point to see the tundra swans is the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center, which connects with the North Pond Wildlife Trail, immediately behind the parking area.

Wildlife trails within the refuge are open year round during daylight hours, and are fully disabled-accessible. Neither pets nor bicycles are allowed on walking trails, and more information can be found at

Visitors can also observe tundra swans at multiple national wildlife refuges (NWR) in eastern North Carolina, including Alligator River, Pocosin Lakes, and Mattamuskeet.


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