Swans (in winter)

I went to RSPB Baron’s Haugh on Tuesday on the hunt for Lapwings. The reserve page recommends late summer/autumn for finding them in large numbers but I had seen them from the Causeway hide on a winter day when the wetland was frozen so I fancied my chances. Everything was frozen hard – the wetland and all the surrounding vegetation. The causeway to the hide was under water, vegetation and ice and I did not fancy wet feet, but I didn’t miss anything from the hide. All the birds were right in the middle of the wetland, about as far as they could be from any vantage points. So while I enjoyed the beautiful light,  and the explosive sounds of the ice cracking, I thought about another frozen place where the birds were easier to see and photograph.

Frozen water can be hazardous for swans. We were at Hogganfield Loch on January 3rd, 2021 when a swan rescue took place – it attracted many onlookers and the ice cream van did a roaring trade. Most of the images in this post were taken at the Loch on cold mornings in happier times, before the current outbreak of avian ‘flu, with the swans making some beautiful shapes.

The Loch is shallow and very weedy and it sustains a wide range of species. The Mutes and Whoopers get well fed on a regular basis, mostly with bread. When they’re not inundated with “Orange Warbies” (one of the great fishing baits, though many anglers prefer the blue version), swans are hugely inefficient processers of aquatic vegetation and inadvertent consumers of small creatures which get dragged up with the plants. Mark Nicolaides’ Swanlife website (which has some wonderful images) tells me that: “It has been suggested that for a Mute Swan feeding off wet vegetation, it could eat in excess of 3.5kg per day – which equates to about 30 to 35% of its body mass.”

A study (Li et al., PloS ONE 2022, 17(2): e0264528) of a population of Whooper Swans on a migration site on the Yellow River wetland in China, found that the birds derived a significant proportion of their energy intake from corn remaining on flooded unharvested farmland. A large team looked at both ends of the pipe; food material was burnt in calorimeters to allow accurate measurement of the energy yield of the various plant species available for the birds to graze. The researchers drawing the short straw (as it were), collected swan crap, dried it, suspended the residue in water and not only identified leaves and seeds using optical microscopy, but quantified the proportions of the different species in the matrix. OMG. The smarter research students probably offered bribes to ensure that they were assigned the former task.

When the birds couldn’t get corn, much of their food value came from the Common Reed (Phragmites australis). If they were Mute swans on the Forth and Clyde Canal, they would probably be munching Canadian Pond Weed (Elodea canadensis) though in insufficient quantities – the weed renders the waterway unfishable throughout most of the year (at least on the City Branch). I also have photographs from two Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserves; I visited Martin Mere in Lancashire in 2018 and Caerlaverock in Dumfries and Galloway on a dark January day in 2019. The peaceful Whoopers (above) are from the former site, while the mass feeding is from the latter (the punters behind the glass look transported). The mass feeding in Glasgow (below) was photographed on a glittering winter day.

I will revisit Mute swans in a different season when they offer something quite different. By then, the Whooper family groups will be back in Iceland if they have survived the ‘flu and packed on enough fat to sustain them on the journey.

Swans seem to bring out the worst in poets and Greek mythology involving swans is very dangerous ground, but I am aware of one restrained treatment. In The Death of Cygnus, Ted Hughes describes the slaughter of the son of Neptune by Achilles outside the walls of Troy. Five pages of ultra-violence takes us to the finale:

In those moments
Neptune’s words had breathed in off the ocean
And carried away Cygnus
On white wings, their each wingstroke
Yelping strangely – a bird with a long
Undulating neck and a bruised beak
Aimed at a land far beyond the horizon.

Form, sound and purpose elegantly brought to mind.

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