Dear Readers, on the Seventh Day of Christmas the unfortunate lover has to find room in their already crowded house for no less than seven swans. Whilst I always think that any water body is graced by the presence of swans, I’m not sure I’d want them in my living room, regarding me with a suspicious look and flapping at me every time I got up to make a cup of tea. The blooming geese are bad enough. However, I think that any body of water is much improved by the presence of these elegant, regal birds. They manage to look regal and self-possessed even when taking off and landing, which is quite a feat. Have a look at the video below by Gary Saunders – this must be one of my favourites of 2021.
For most people, the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) is the swan that they’re most familiar with. The orange bill is a giveaway, as is the way that the Mute Swan often carries its head on an arched neck, unlike the straight neck of Bewick’s and Whooper swans. Mute swans are at the top end of the weight range for flying birds – there’s a trade off between weight and power when it comes to flying, and at a certain point, the weight of the muscles required to power the wings are too heavy for the bird to take off. Incidentally, although called ‘Mute’ swans, the wings themselves make a very distinctive noise in flight. This next recording really gives me the tingles. You can almost ‘see’ the swan flying over your head.
Both other swan species that we’re likely to see in the UK are migrants. Whooper swans arrive in Scotland, the north-east of England and Ireland in October from Iceland – it’s thought that they travel en masse over the North Atlantic and then disperse when they reach the British Isles.The distinctive feature of the whooper swan is its voice. Some have described it as sounding like an old-fashioned car hooter, but I think it’s rather wilder than that. Have a listen and see what you think. These are the calls of a group of swans on the ground….
And here they are in flight – my Crossley Guide says that whoopers often call three times while in flight, and that’s very evident here.
Bewick’s swans (also known as tundra swans) fly in from Siberia in the autumn, and can usually be seen on flooded fields, lakes and salt marshes. These are very localised birds, but the RSPB Slimbridge and Martin Mere reserves are good places to see them. These are our smallest swans, and Crossley suggests that they have a ‘mellow hooting call’, which is usually double rather than triple.
Now, how do you tell a whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus) from a Bewick’s swan (Cygnus columbianus)? Both have yellow and black bills, but a Bewick’s swan is smaller and stockier than a whooper, and the patterns on the bills are different. On a whooper, the yellow reaches much further down the bill, and the bill itself is longer.
The ID is, however, complicated by the fact that each swan actually has a distinctive beak pattern which can be used to identify it as an individual – I seem to remember that Peter Scott, the founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, kept a sketchbook with ‘portraits’ of all the swans who visited the reserve. These are long-lived birds that return again and again. How lovely to grow to know them as individuals.
The Guardian did a nice piece about Slimbridge’s 50th ‘Swanniversary’, and you can have a look here.
So, after Day Seven our song finally turns away from its theme of birds, and towards humans. However, I am allowing myself some latitude on the subject matter, as usual. Let’s see what ‘Eight Maids a-Milking’ will bring.
Below are some beautiful swans. I’m even going to tell you the species. But what continent are they from? Your choices are:
a) North America
c) South America