There’s nothing else so dramatic in March as a big flock of tundra swans taking off from a half-frozen pond, their feet slapping a staccato beat on the water, their cries whistling through the damp air.
“They are beautiful, just incredible birds,” said David Siebanthaler, a North Idaho bird-watcher.
March is a banner month for bird lovers.
The Inland Northwest becomes a major flyway for thousands of swans, ducks and geese as they head north to breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska.
The birds are skittish when approached by humans, but many of them can be seen easily throughout Eastern Washington and North Idaho.
A large flock of snowy white tundra swans rested Monday in a wetland behind the Cheney Rodeo Grounds while motorists whisked by on the nearby highway. Another flock was feeding on private land a mile south of Cheney.
Biologists say above-average rain and snow have filled the region’s ponds and fields, giving the birds plenty of places to stop to feed - and breed if they choose to spend the summer here.
As a result, 1996 is expected to be one of the best years in a decade for viewing waterfowl.
At Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge south of Cheney, migrating ducks and swans are starting to show, and biologists are hoping their numbers will improve.
“This year, we have the best water we’ve seen on the refuge since 1986,” said Mike Rule, wildlife biologist at Turnbull.
Duck populations nationwide have been on the increase in recent years after declining through the early 1990s. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated there were 36 million ducks in the United States and Canada in 1995, a 10 percent increase over the previous year.
At Turnbull, the number of ducks that breed at the refuge has nearly doubled since the drought of 1992.
“There are lots of areas that are being flooded for the first time in years,” Rule said.
But in North Idaho, high water may be working against waterfowl populations there, experts said.
Many species of ducks thrive in shallow areas where they feed by bobbing, rather than diving. Those types of ducks are known as dabblers and include mallards, teals and gadwalls.
Shallow areas were flooded this winter and are not suitable habitat for dabblers, said Paul Hanna, biologist for the Idaho Fish and Game Department.
“This year, we have too much water,” said Hanna.
Bird lover Siebanthaler said a lot of waterfowl species have declined in recent years at the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge near Bonners Ferry, Idaho.
Siebanthaler, president of the North Idaho chapter of the Audubon Society, said he fears development of wetlands has damaged populations of many species permanently. He said half of the country’s wetlands have been developed since 1900.
Still, dedicated fowl fanciers such as Siebanthaler are flapping with excitement over spring migration.
Waterfowl and songbirds take on their brilliant breeding colors during early spring.
“The ducks should be just dazzling here pretty soon,” Siebanthaler said.
Jim Acton, a Spokane birdwatcher, said he wouldn’t miss the migration for anything. His favorite species is the sandhill crane, which can be seen south of Reardan, Wash., near a farming area known as Walkon.
“Hey, I’m out there all the time,” Acton said.
For viewing birds, he recommends the Crab Creek drainage west of Spokane and the wetlands of western Lincoln County.
The diversity of nature is one reason people seek out birds.
“Each one has a different song. They come from different areas and they are going to different locations,” Acton said. “They know no boundaries.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Graphic: Population flying high