They have flown across the skies between Iceland and Scotland like great, full-sailed, white galleons. Their winter will be spent here, albeit that they may well be nomadic in habit moving from one part of the country to another in order to find good grazing. The flight itself must have been testing to say the least, especially for the young whooper swans hatched only a few months ago. But they had no choice but to embark on this hazardous journey across almost a thousand miles of North Atlantic as a means of survival.
Iceland, their birthplace, is a hostile winter environment and migration is therefore their only reasonable choice. At least they will have been shepherded across that dangerous ocean by their parents and other senior members of the flock. Nevertheless, this will have been a challenge so soon in their short lives but the sense of adventure will have been enhanced by the speed at which their journey will have been undertaken. As many of us know only too well, the winds have turned to the north in recent days. Hence the snow now decorating the hills but whooper swans like to make this journey with tailwinds to drive them forward.
Out of preference, this trans-Atlantic flight is conducted, by and large, at low levels and not too far above the restless surface of the sea. However, should these migrating whoopers encounter hostile weather- systems, tactics may change and in order to maintain their progress, they may rise to higher altitudes as a means of overflying the weather conditions. Indeed, whooper swans have been recorded flying at altitudes of nearly thirty thousand feet in order to avoid turbulence. Incredibly, at such heights they are having to navigate in temperatures which may dip to as low as minus fifty degrees and where there is relatively little oxygen so this now becomes an even greater test of endurance.
Once those tailwinds start to blow, there is simply no stopping whooper swans. It has been calculated that with the following winds at high altitude and with the help of the jet stream and thermals, they may reach speeds of over eighty miles per hour, so they are certainly no slouches. I doubt if the more ponderous mute swans could achieve anything like that kind of speed but then whooper swans are that bit lighter, that bit more athletic. These are our true wild swans and, in that respect, they differ from the mute swans with which most people, whether resident in town or country, are familiar. Mute swans choose to reside on park ponds, canals and a variety of waterways, rivers and sea-shores where they readily accept gifts of food, such as bread from passing folk.
Whoopers on the other hand much prefer remoter stretches of water such as Highland lochs and lochans, where there are few people. It seems to be below their dignity to accept scraps from passing humans and indeed non-acceptance of such close company, is a further confirmation of their truly wild character and spirit! Indeed, these are almost certainly the swans that have been the subject of a whole host of myths and legends. However, there is no evidence at all that swans of any kind sing before they die. I’m afraid the ‘swan song’ is entirely an invention of human imagination.
Whooper swans however, are more vocal than their mute cousins. Their passage is often marked by a gentle bugling that is definitely soothing on the human ear. Years ago, our winter mornings were often punctuated by the passage of birds. At first light, there would be the gabbling of geese as they did their fly past on the way to their daily grazing. This would be followed by the raucous passage of rooks and jackdaws rising from their nightly roosts to get out into the fields to search for food in the shape of countless noxious invertebrates that can damage farm crops and finally the gentle fluting of the whoopers as they brought up the rear. They too would be setting out to find good grazing and theirs were the most pleasant voices. Such order sadly no longer seems to apply here as it used to.
I suppose that wild swans might be seen by the creators of folklore, as suitable subjects. After all, they are the embodiment of grace and who would not want to be transformed in to a swan? Many tales involving swans come from Ireland, the home of so much folklore. These are the swans that sing sweet songs in so many Irish legends. For example, the ‘children of Lir’ - the sons and daughters of an Irish king were turned into swans by their inevitable ‘wicked’ stepmother and sentenced to live for nine hundred years on the waters of Moyle! So wonderful was their singing that anyone hearing it would fall under their spell and gather to hear such music.
However, the Irish by no means enjoy the monopoly of swan stories for the Ancient Greeks had wild swans pulling Apollo’s chariot across the skies too. Apollo was of course the sun god. Indeed, further myth tells us that Apollo and his twin Artemis were conceived by Zeus in the form of swans. In which case perhaps the two whooper swans I recently saw on one of our lochs, which caused the resident mute swan cob such consternation may well have been those Greek twins!
Mute swan cobs can be aggressive, especially when it comes to territorial integrity. The two whoopers landed on his patch at one end of the loch and he immediately set off to remove them, his legs working overtime as he paddled furiously towards them. Having swum the length of the loch, he was frustrated as the two whoopers took off without fuss and without being laboured and flew back to the top of the loch he had just vacated. He now began to retrace his steps only for the whoopers to translocate again. To and fro they went for some time before the cob just gave up the futile chase!
Mute swans can be aggressive and often hiss if people get too near to them, however, the rumour that a swan is capable of breaking a human arm with its wing is also a myth of more modern invention. Whooper swans, which disport themselves mainly straight necked compared with arched neck of the mute swan, seem more serene and simply move on should we invade their space. Occasionally whoopers may trumpet but their fluting conversations and their delightful bugling are what we mostly hear.
Such birds of beauty, subjects of myths and ancient tales are clearly hardy in the extreme and surely amongst the most beautiful of all the winter migrants we enjoy seeing. We surely welcome them as worthy winter residents. Simply majestic!