The conservation and heritage charity for the
Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park

Weekly Nature Watch

Country View 8.11.17

on .

At times, life can seem like the ticking of clocks. Some clocks tick fast; others tick slowly. The life of the blue tit currently hammering away at the peanuts hanging from my bird-table lives its life at a pretty phenomenal rate - like a small clock, ticking furiously. Its life-span is short for it will be very lucky to survive beyond its second birthday. Furthermore, like all small birds, which generally enjoy a short but very vigorous life, it has already probably packed in a fair amount of adventure into its life.

The starting point for that particular bird would have been in the late spring of this year and like all young, small birds, the beginning of its life would have been full of surprises. After emerging from the egg, it would have spent just short of three weeks developing from a bald and blind chick into an almost fully feathered tit, before finding its way from the confines of its nest into the outside world ... another dimension altogether. And whilst its parents would have continued to feed it over the course of the next few weeks, pretty quickly it would have had to learn to survive on its own.

Of course, young birds like that blue tit, are immediately faced with a plethora of problems; where to find sufficient food - in competition with all the other youngsters emerging - to ensure survival and how to avoid falling into the clutches, for instance, of the local sparrowhawks. By the nature of things, sparrowhawks instinctively prey heavily on inexperienced, young birds, as they are, it is safe to assume, extremely vulnerable and very definitely at that early stage of their lives, not 'street-wise'!

All young song-birds face such problems. Nature can be extremely red in tooth and claw. Nature is also very raw and extremely pragmatic. Only the fittest survive. That is the name of the game! Thus, I found myself reminiscing about my own young days. We humans generally have things pretty cushy; mollycoddled! But I do remember finding myself facing the first real challenge of life when I was called up for my National Service stint and soon found myself propelled halfway across the world. It might have seemed a shock to the system at the time but the reality was that an eight thousand mile journey on a troopship, well fed and watered, was, compared with some of the challenges faced by young birds, also distinctly cushy!

These thoughts stemmed from the sight of a flock of whooper swans grazing happily away in a local field. They represent the other end of the spectrum, slow ticking and long lasting. There wre among them, several cygnets, which of course, were not as pristine white as their parents. Now young whoopers, I thought, really do face a challenge very early in their lives! Their lives begin in the bleak tundra of Iceland, a pretty hostile environment. Unlike many of the small birds alluded to, whooper cygnets emerge from the egg not bald and blind but covered in down and with their eyes wide open. Thus, from the word go they are able to see their desolate if beautiful surroundings during the brief Arctic summer of endless light.

They too have predators to cope with, not sparrowhawks perhaps but the likes of Arctic foxes for instance, which can definitely threaten swan nests. But those cygnets grow quickly and are able to fly at around eight weeks of age. And then, aged little more than three months of age, they suddenly realise that they are to be on the move with a journey of very nearly a thousand miles across the wild north Atlantic suddenly now their destiny. True, it isn't a journey they have to face on their own as is the case for instance, with young ospreys making their way to Africa. They are indeed, well chaperoned by their extended family - parents, uncles, aunts, older siblings and cousins. Whooper swans, like geese, are very family orientated.

But hundreds of miles of what can be a very hostile North Atlantic Ocean, represents a pretty daunting early learning process for those young whoopers. This, the first great adventure of their young lives, is certainly destined to stretch and test them beyond what we might regard as reasonable! And these swans can on occasions, be real high flyers. If weather systems lie in their path, they may make detours to avoid them, adding to the non-stop mileage they must fly. Sometimes rather than fly round such weather systems, they may choose to fly over them.

Such decisions often take them to dizzying altitudes and airline pilots have recorded flocks of whooper swans travelling at heights of over thirty thousand feet! How those young birds are able to survive that sort of trauma is difficult to imagine. The familiar v-shaped formation helps in so far as each bird in the body of the flock, profits from the protection offered by those ahead of them and in terms of energy required the 'followers' get some 'lift' from those in front too.

The leadership of those flocks changes constantly and is shared by the senior, most experienced members of the swan community which of course, relies heavily on the navigational skills of those senior birds. The young birds are in much the same way as I was, simply 'squaddies' which do as they are told and obey orders! Whilst I certainly found the places we briefly docked at interesting, the voyage otherwise, was rather boring ... miles and miles of empty ocean. I doubt if the cygnets find their trek across the Atlantic boring - just a massive challenge!

Thus, the next chapter of their lives will be lived out in this green and pleasant land, where green grass will be their staple diet throughout the winter months. Meanwhile they will add a grace to our skies for compared with the more sedentary mute swans, occupants of many a loch and riverside, not to mention urban based park ponds and canals, whoopers are considerably lighter and more athletic. They are also considerably more musical, their passage often marked by a mellow fluting. They used to be winter residents on our local loch and so our days then often began with the wild 'rush hour' travels of shrill gabbling pink feet, followed by the more raucous clamour of rooks and jackdaws and finally the more musical belling of the whoopers.

Mute swans resident on our lochs often seem to see the whoopers as interlopers and I have many times witnessed attempts by belligerent Mute cobs to remove what they see as invading whoopers from their territory. The whoopers on every occasion, simply decamped - flew - from one end of the loch to the other, in the process clearly enraging the angry cob! Off he would go again, and back they would fly! He was not amused, although I was!

The whoopers are our truly wild swans and their presence somehow enhances winter's wildness!

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods