The exception to the rule: Retreating ice front makes Bewick's swans Cygnus columbianus bewickii migrate slower in spring than in autumn
In the vast majority of migratory bird species studied so far, spring migration has been found to proceed faster than autumn migration. In spring, selection pressures for rapid migration are purportedly higher, and migratory conditions such as food supply, daylength, and/or wind support may be better than in autumn. In swans, however, spring migration appears to be slower than autumn migration. Based on a comparison of tundra swan Cygnus columbianus tracking data with long-term temperature data from wheather stations, it has previously been suggested that this was due to a capital breeding strategy (gathering resources for breeding during spring migration) and/or to ice cover constraining spring but not autumn migration. Here we directly test the hypothesis that Bewick's swans Cygnus columbianus bewickii follow the ice front in spring, but not in autumn, by comparing three years of GPS tracking data from individual swans with concurrent ice cover data at five important migratory stop-over sites. In general, ice constrained the swans in the middle part of spring migration, but not in the first (no ice cover was present in the first part) nor in the last part. In autumn, the swans migrated far ahead of ice formation, possibly in order to prevent being trapped by an early onset of winter. We conclude that spring migration in swans is slower than autumn migration because spring migration speed is constrained by ice cover. This restriction to spring migration speed may be more common in northerly migrating birds that rely on freshwater resources.