Weekly Nature Watch

Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.

Weekly Nature Watch 11th December 2020

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Speugs were the first birds to attract my attention as a child.

They nested in numbers in the eaves of the house of my childhood and l remember the sadness I felt every time I discovered the naked corpses of chicks which had either fallen or been ejected from their nests.

Starlings also soon caught my eye. With their cocky, Chaplinesque, strutting gait and quarrelsome behaviour when visiting the bird-table they were a constant source of amusement. Yet starlings surely express the very embodiment of a Jekyll and Hyde nature. On the one hand, they are wholly undisciplined, argumentative and extremely individualistic when descending to the bird-table, but on the other hand, when taking flight they suddenly act as one, expressing astonishing discipline and conforming absolutely to the regimen demanded by the flock.

As a greater awareness dawned of the avian population just outside the window, bluetits, great tits, chaffinches and greenfinches began to enter my life. Then at last, my vision extended beyond the frontier and confines of our garden. Much more exciting were the encounters I now enjoyed with soaring, lung-bursting skylarks, hovering kestrels and most gloriously with athletically darting swallows and house martins. Now watching birds was assuming new dimensions and bird watching was rapidly beginning to become a vital part of my life.

I now observe that in some ways, things haven't changed and speugs are still a regular part of my life. However, there was a severe decline in the UK house sparrow population in both rural and urban areas between 1977 and 2008 estimated as being about 71 per cent.  But while the decline in England still continues, surveys indicate that the population in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has increased. House sparrows finally established a small colony here several years ago and that has expanded.  Now, when I go about my morning chores, it is a rarity not to find myself accompanied by the characteristic, garrulous noise of arguing speugs.

Consequently, for many years my garden was utterly bereft of sparrows, except for the regular appearances of those erroneously named, somewhat skulking hedge sparrows, which are in truth not sparrows at all but dunnocks. If ever there was a bird that hid its light under a bushel, it surely is the dunnock. The very name is thought to mean “dun-coloured bird” Yet there is a shy charm about them and a sweet song to hear when spring comes round.

House sparrows, together with their now much rarer cousins, tree sparrows, are clearly seed-eating birds, possessed of blocky little beaks, while dunnocks or hedge sparrows have the fine beaks typical of insect eaters. However, as many observers will be aware these shy little birds, which always seem to be on the periphery of feeding flocks of birds, consume large quantities of small seeds during the winter months.

House sparrows, gregarious and appearing to be short neither on energy nor indeed on noisy banter are cheerful exploiters of man’s rubbish and wastefulness and have managed to colonise most of the world – the ultimate avian opportunist perhaps? Stone Age man doubtless also enjoyed the company of sparrows, just as any community of people anywhere in the modern age, rather than considering them to be commonplace and therefore somewhat banal, will generally find themselves unwittingly playing host to these attractive wee birds. Of course, they profit from our company and perhaps in many ways depend upon it.

In my youth, I remember noting that only the titmice were capable of clinging to the baskets or bags of peanuts placed in our garden. Now, through succeeding generations and through an evolutionary process that some of us have actually been able to witness, both sparrows and finches have gradually strengthened their feet sufficiently to enable them to cling to the nut feeders, albeit with nothing like the aplomb of the tits.

The arrival of the Yuletide month of December takes us inexorably closer to the shortest day yet, with the brief exception of those few days when snow clothed the bens, temperatures have remained fairly benign but very wet Thus, although sparrows, chaffinches and greenfinches are eagerly consuming seed, the titmice at present are largely ignoring my offers of food and I can only presume that they are finding natural sources.

Nor will there be a shortage of natural food for the goldfinches. However, in their case, my decision to keep the sunflower seed feeders stocked up has apparently persuaded them to stay around and their numbers are increasing by the day.  This, of course, is the thistle finch, the gowdspink, the las air-choille or flame of the wood of the Gaels, the seven-coloured linnet or even the spotted dick!

Goldfinches are notably more agile than other members of the finch clan. In stripping flower heads from the likes of thistles, they show themselves to be quite the acrobats as they cling to the plant stems to tease out the nutritious seeds.  Often hanging upside down and demonstrating that they are not that far behind the titmice in their nimbleness. Perhaps, one of the most colourful of our native birds, some might also argue that they are among the most musical. Their murmuring conversation as they fly is said to be reminiscent of Chinese bells, however, goldfinches are not singers of grand operatic arias. They are not blackbirds or thrushes, nor indeed are they Pavarotti’s or Domingo’s. Filling the air with their delightful trilling, more do they provide the operatic chorus, yet their voices are liquid, lilting and when listened to carefully, versatile and constant.

Once upon a time, goldfinches were much coveted for their colourful plumage and indeed, for their gentle colourful music too. Their fate was to be among the most favoured caged birds in an era during which our Victorian ancestors, while recognising the innate beauty of the goldfinch's plumage and voice, could not acknowledge the cruelty of catching and caging a wild bird for the rest of its life. Hundreds of thousands of goldfinches were captured and imprisoned in order that their physical beauty and their musical voices could entertain. Their captors even taught the wee birds to pull threads in order to draw up little buckets of water. Very entertaining, I'm sure, but also despicably pitiless.

Far more sympathetic was their portrayal in devotional paintings by many Italian and French artists, their colour and beauty, if not their voices, captured gloriously on canvas. In words as well, they have also had their moments of glory:

            “Sometimes goldfinches one by one will drop
From low-hung branches; little space they stop;
But sip, and twitter, and their feathers sleek;
Then off at once, as in a wanton freak:
Or perhaps, to show their black and golden wings
Pausing upon their yellow flutterings."

                   John Keats.

Weekly Nature Watch 4th December 2020

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As each day of the current cold snap goes by, the number of small birds taking advantage of my offerings of nuts, sunflower hearts and fat balls appears to swell.

I'm sure that many readers are sharing the same experience and enjoying the antics of a whole host of garden visitors.

Suburban gardens, with their rich variety of shrubs and trees, provide shelter for a remarkable range of birds. They also provide cover for lurking cats! But in the countryside, or at least in parts of the countryside, too much natural cover has been eliminated as hedgerows and those wee, wild corners have steadily disappeared as man has sought to extract more and more from his few acres.  However, I am fortunate in that most of the hedgerows hereabouts have remained. They are augmented by clusters of birch, rowan and hawthorn, which fringe the dense conifer plantations, and between them they also provide marvellous shelter for a whole host of small birds.

I recall a late afternoon meander some years ago along some of my local hedgerows which perfectly illustrated their value for, as | wandered slowly through the neighbouring fields, my progress was charted by hundreds of mini evacuations of flocks of finches and tits.  There were great tits, blue tits and coal tits together with chaffinches filtering through the branches in their frantic search for insects and spiders.

Blue tits and great tits are two of the most common native birds but a recent report from the British Trust for Ornithology has revealed that their numbers appear to have slumped this autumn which has been attributed to the fifth warmest April in more than 100 years.  As a result, caterpillars - an important food source for young tits - developed early and with fewer of them available during the main nesting season, it is thought that this has led to the reduced survival of nestlings and smaller populations over all.

As I walked, there was still quite a harvest to be gathered from the hawthorns and a bevy of blackbirds was hard at work popping the red haws one by one down ever receptive throats. They scolded me and hurried off a few yards as I disturbed them.  One particular cock bird, in prime condition with his almost luminous bill, those yellow eye-rings seeming to enlarge his dark glinting eyes and his black plumage fairly singing in the brittle November sunshine, hurried to and fro with a real volley of blackbird swear words!

Mixed flocks of chaffinches and greenfinches similarly bounced away in that buoyant flight, the pink breasts of the cock ‘chaffies’ and the yellow flashes on the wings of the greenies catching the rays of the sun.

There were no cats here but there was a menace. As I stood in the corner of a field for a moment, a slate grey shape suddenly slid from the hawthorn bush ahead of me and sped low and straight along the hedge side, about two feet above the stubble. A cock sparrowhawk was on the war path.  He flew   along for about 15 or 20 yards in a rapid, yet surreptitious approach before suddenly lifting over the hedge to continue on the other side, the purpose of which was to catch any panic stricken bird bursting from cover. On this occasion, however, his attack brought no reward and I lost sight of him as he zig-zagged through the birches into the nearby forest.

As a constant background to my meandering, endless groups of geese criss-crossed the sky - smallish skeins of greylags, heavier in flight and deeper of voice and larger groups of falsetto-voiced pinkfeet, somewhat smaller and, it appeared more hurried. Rooks and jackdaws increased the general cacophony of noise and a flight of a dozen whoopers added a more musical note.  A covey of partridges rose on whirring wings from the stubble and sped away from my dogs and a gathering of pheasants responded more noisily by rising with loud, throaty protests to clear the spruces and seek a more peaceful place in one of the forest rides.

However, my eye caught another movement along the edge of the forest - another menace! It was a dog fox on the prowl but I was downwind of him and quite well camouflaged with the hedge at my back, so he was completely unaware of me.

He was following a well-defined path, no doubt a regular fox highway, and steadily coming straight towards me. His progress was unhurried and unworried although he constantly stopped to sift the air for danger and paused frequently to examine anything and everything, sniffing here and there, perhaps catching the scent of voles in the tussocks of grass through which his path took him.  He also marked his progress at frequent intervals by lifting his leg and leaving a succession of visiting cards to inform other foxes of his presence. Foxes are generally solitary creatures yet there is a social order of vocal contact and scenting. These ‘sign posts’, along with scat, advertise the fox’s presence, its dominance and sexual status to all other red foxes that pass by.

He rarely moved forward more than a few paces before he stopped again, his sensitive nose providing a never-ending ‘computer’ read-out of what had passed that way before him. His nose did not, however, tell him of the presence of a brown hare some 50 yards away to his right.  As if it knew that there was sufficient distance between it and the fox, the hare first stood on its hind legs, bolt upright, ears flicking this way and that, nose working overtime, before then slowly loping off at right angles to the path of the fox, quite unconcerned and unhurried.

I was convinced that the hare was well aware of the presence of the fox, but equally sure that Foxy knew nothing of the hare. Maybe he had picked up the scent but had ignored it knowing that the hare could outrun him anyway and so was unprepared to expend energy needlessly in some fruitless chase.  But suddenly, he did come across an interesting scent for he paused and examined the grass really intently, pushing that black button of a nose deep into a particular tussock. He spent a good half minute examining it then cocked a leg and turned briskly into the cover of the forest and out of sight.

As I now turned homeward, the geese seemed even more active with skeins, large and small, flying in every direction. The rooks and jackdaws were also gathering and heading for their roost and the sun painted the few clouds out to the west in a lovely warm pink glow.  The snow cap on the Ben sparkled and the sun dipped to the horizon casting an almost bronzed light across the stubble accentuating the rich colours of the hedgerows and trees.


Weekly Nature Watch 27th November 2020

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The game of pool is started by a player sending the cue ball into a pack of numbered balls in the hope that one of them might drop into a pocket.  In that respect, there is a marked degree of chance about the game at its beginning, if not subsequently.

It may seem a curious analogy but the antics of a sparrowhawk that I watched recently, appeared to exactly mirror that first break at pool when it suddenly launched itself at a substantial group of starlings which at the time, were perched in a black line along the electricity lines.  The starlings exploded in a total panic, birds scattering, it seemed to me, in every direction and accelerating outwards like a star burst. But on this occasion the sparrowhawk failed to secure its expected meal for not one starling obliged in presenting itself as a suitable target.  

In general, all that most of us see of a sparrowhawk in action is simply that brief glimpse of a grey bird hurtling through space.  It is usually gone in a couple of seconds but those readers, who regularly feed birds in their garden, may have had the opportunity of slightly closer observations.  Sparrowhawks are canny enough to have worked out that there are usually a lot of birds to be found in the vicinity of a well-stocked bird-table and therefore a steady supply of meals to be won.  In fact, I know that there are plenty of people who take umbrage at the intrusion of a sparrowhawk and complain that it is taking the very birds they are attempting to feed.  However, this is all part and parcel of the food chain, for in the spring those same small birds may eat the caterpillars of some of our most beautiful butterflies. And it is a fact that predation of this kind generally eliminates the weaker birds, even if we cannot see such weaknesses.  In this way, the stronger survive and thus the future stock of a species is itself strengthened.

In its hunting techniques, the sparrowhawk is covert.  It often literally ambushes its victims by lurking in the branches of a tree, perhaps on the edge of woodland, along some forest ride or close to a clearing, from which it can launch itself at a passing bird.  Sometimes it will also use its cunning to speed low along one side of a hedge to flush out small birds and then hop over the hedge to take them as they flee.

By any standards and in absolute contrast, the kestrel is overt in its hunting habits.  If there is one bird of prey most people have actually seen and witnessed going about its daily work, then surely that bird is the kestrel.  Curiously enough, although many people are indeed familiar with the hovering kestrel, for some obscure reason and I know not why, there is a tendency for kestrels to be thought of as sparrowhawks.

If you ask me, the sight – the glorious sight of a kestrel hovering on those trembling scimitar wings with its tail fanning this way and that to make minute corrections to ensure that, in spite of sometimes strong winds, the head stays rock still, is a sight of which I never tire. And while they are not slouches, kestrels are no match for sparrowhawks when it comes to speed and manoeuverability.  Yet in some cases, they have clearly mastered hawk-like techniques.

In more rural areas, another bird of prey, which is also relatively overt in it movements, is the buzzard.  Frequently seen slowly circling over woodland or across open fields and although lazy it might appear, believe me that those wonderfully sharp eyes will be searching ceaselessly for food opportunities.  Buzzards may well also turn their endeavours to a wide range of food sources from worms to carrion.  They are opportunists but their ability to extend themselves in terms of hunting should not be underestimated.  I well recall seeing a buzzard using the sparrowhawk modus operandi to snatch a blackbird in mid-air as it fled from a hedge.  And I have often watched in awe as a buzzard launched itself in a shallow dive at a rabbit.  No, buzzards should definitely not be underestimated!

I also once had the occasion to watch the stealthy hunting technique of a male hen harrier as it flopped its way across some fields, flying quite low and obviously at half throttle but ready to accelerate in a trice at the sight of potential prey – small birds or mammals.  Incidentally, hen harriers have always been accused of predation on grouse but recent research by Nature Scotland would indicate that grouse make up only eight or nine per cent of their diet thus disparaging the myth. In reality, the meadow pipit is the most frequent victim.

Generally, the hen harrier’s technique is to swoop on prey and strike with those lightning-fast feet, bringing the target immediately to ground.  There is also a distinctive grace and buoyancy about the flight of a harrier, a grace perhaps accentuated in the male by that handsome grey and white plumage.

In the harrier’s case, swift reflexes are the name of the game and I suppose the same might be said of the sparrowhawk.  However, speed over a short distance and an agility enabling the hawk to zig-zag through woodland are also essential.   But when it comes to speed - sheer speed – then one has to look to the higher places, to the haunts of the peregrine and the eagle. 

The redoubtable peregrine is the real speedster – its hunting technique relies on sheer speed and strength.  The falcon will drift about on up-currents or perch on some appropriately sited high rock waiting for suitable prey to pass below and then it will launch itself in a shallow, accelerating dive.  It is a sight that I have had the pleasure of witnessing on a number of occasions, and which in my own experience I have hardly known to fail. 

Various claims have been made as to the speed attained by a stooping peregrine but it is thought that it is possible for a peregrine to reach speeds of around 200 mph in ideal conditions which is phenomenal. I cannot begin to guess at the speed reached by any bird that I have watched except to say that it was certainly fast!  But then everything about the bird’s appearance seems to give the impression of a bird designed with speed in mind. 

In the case of the eagle, because of its comparative bulk, we do not perhaps recognise that this is also a bird of great speed.  However, experts tell me that a typical, unhurried soaring speed in golden eagles is 28-32 mph and when hunting or displaying, it is capable of very fast gliding at 120 mph. But when diving in the direction of prey or during territorial displays, the eagle holds its wings tight and partially closed against its body and the legs up against its tail and in this way, it can reach speeds of up to 150-200 mph.

Each bird has developed its own particular techniques to ensure success and survival.  Some are immediately recognisable, some more obvious, and it appears that some we like and some we don’t! But whether like or dislike is based upon the type of prey taken by each species - and of course there are considerable overlaps – or whether our judgement is clouded by practices we would alternatively describe as bold or cunning, I don’t know.  But what I do know is that each fills a necessary niche in the remarkable jigsaw that is nature.

Weekly Nature Watch 20th November 2020

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The nightly hooting and screeching of tawny owls always intensifies at this time of the year as the summer’s youngsters begin to disperse, relocate and seek pastures new as they try to establish areas for themselves.

They may be going it alone and leaving the parental territories where they have been nurtured but they are not altogether losing contact with either their parents or indeed their siblings. The hoots and screeches are contact calls which in essence are saying, “This is where I am. Where are you?” We may be more familiar with tawny owls than with other owls, yet more often than not we hear them without seeing them! They are without doubt, creatures of the night.

More than any other species of owl, the tawny appears prepared to often live in close proximity with people. Many reside in urban settings where old trees planted years ago in an effort to make our townscapes and cityscapes greener, also provide the tawnies with nesting opportunities. The plentiful populations of house mice, field mice and rats in the urban areas also deliver plenty of food for these otherwise woodland dwellers. Our other owls, include the recently referred to short-eared variety which is not a woodland dweller but hunts instead over open moorland and salt marshes and is our one and only daytime hunting owl. On the other hand, the long-eared owl is very much a woodland dweller and as such is quite rare and seldom seen.

The most romantic of our owls is of course, the almost white barn owl, which cuts a ghostly figure as it courses low over farmland especially at dawn and dusk. Sadly, the barn owl is these days struggling in a farmland environment that is slowly becoming alien to it. The stripping out of hedgerows in recent times has reduced the landscape’s power to support the rodents which are such a vital food source to all owls. I believe that a depletion of rodents in our countryside is putting these birds under pressure and indeed, other raptors such as kestrels, as well.

Down the years I have played host to a number of young tawny owls each of which probably appeared to be lost after being subsequently found apparently stranded on the ground by people as they strolled through woodland. In all probability these foundlings were not lost at all. Young tawny owls exhibit considerable enthusiasm when their parents bring food to the nest and in jostling with siblings to be at the front of the queue to receive such goodies, are quite liable to fall out of the nest in their scramble. Nearly every time this happens, the fallen owlet will eventually make its way back up to the nest using its impressive talons like crampons in order to clamber aloft.

However, I recall one incident in which a young tawny was brought to me which I then promptly took back and with the aid of a ladder, restored it to the nest, only to be told within half an hour that it was back on the ground. Once more I restored it and once more I was told the bird was back on the ground. This time, having returned it to the tree again I waited to see what would happen and was amazed to see a grey squirrel come along and literally give the young owl a firm push to send it fluttering to the ground. I might say that each time I put the youngster back in the tree I took the precaution of wearing a wide brimmed hat. Tawny owls are well known for the courageous defence of their families and nests and the famous bird photographer, Eric Hoskins, paid for his investigation of a tawny owl nest with one of his eyes! This time I was glad to say the squirrel finally got bored of the game and left the owlet alone.

Others came my way. One, named ‘Mohammed Owly’ was brought to me at a time when the boxer of similar name was in his pomp. Again, he had been found below the tree in which his nest was situated but by the time he arrived here, he had become too tame to release and lived with us for a long time in a spacious aviary. However, we did have another long-term resident that absolutely refused to be contained in an aviary, repeatedly escaping and taking up residence in our orchard. Unfortunately, this particular owl had been robbed of the ability to fly as it had fallen foul of some cast-off fishing line which had been abandoned when it become snagged in a tree. Houdini, as we named it, had flown into the line and in its struggles to untangle itself had become so inextricably entwined, that the circulation to its wing had been cut off.  Sadly, after a few days, its wing atrophied and thereafter it was rendered flightless.

Thereafter, Houdini lived the rest of its life wild in our orchard. Food was placed out for him daily and daily it climbed down from the trees and took it aloft to consume it. I had a notion that it also supplemented its diet with the odd roosting bird which doubtless it crept up on under the cover of darkness and snaffled. The nightly screeching of this wayward owl was a regular feature of our lives for a number of years. Others have come and gone, fed until they were strong and old enough to look after themselves and then released but always with a guarantee that for some weeks thereafter, food would be regularly placed out for them.

When tawny owls are hatched they seem to be all eyes, beak and talons. Their feet are enormous compared with those of other birds. Indeed, those feet are interesting in themselves for unlike most birds of prey, which generally have three forward facing talons and one to the rear, tawny owls have two facing front and two facing back.

Of course, the tawny is an exceptionally well-designed raptor. Its night-time vision is superb and to put things into perspective, in comparison with those of tawny owls, our eyes in relation to the size of our skulls would be the size of tennis balls!  However, fine eyesight in the dark is not the only weapon they have at their disposal for their hearing also is phenomenal. For example, with the ears set one slightly higher than the other on the side of its head and by turning its head as a means of synchronizing its ears, a tawny owl can, very precisely without any use of its phenomenal eyesight but purely by sound, locate the rustling of a mouse as it makes its way along the woodland floor. It may in total darkness be unable to see its prey but it can hear it and place its whereabouts exactly.

Not only but also – there is more! The tawny owl has a soft fringe of feathers on the edges of its wings which means, that as it flies, its wings make absolutely no noise whatsoever. So not only are the owl’s eyes able to see in almost total darkness and its hearing can precisely detect the location of its prey again in total darkness, this is also a silent, deadly killer and a much-feared predator of small rodents. But as far as generations of farmers are concerned, it is a warmly welcomed resident in farm buildings, an ally for its predation upon those small rodents that are such a nuisance to farmers.

It is a fact that there is also a distinctively human appearance in the image of a tawny owl. With its rounded head, its large eyes, the hooked beak that resembles a nose and those square shoulders, perhaps that is why the image of an owl portrayed as a cuddly toy is so popular.  However, I can assure you that tawny owls are definitely not cuddly!

Weekly Nature Watch 13th November 2020

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They come in as if rattling sabres - or whatever it was the old Vikings rattled - Scandinavian invaders known as fieldfares and redwings.

In particular, the coarse voices of the fieldfares rattling drily across the autumn landscape almost as if they were issuing warnings of their presence again, perhaps like the Vikings of old did. They fly from hedgerow to hedgerow gobbling up the last remaining rowans as if there was no tomorrow.

These avaricious raiders can strip a tree of its remaining harvest of red berries in minutes and they are also prepared to invade the fields and strip them of their invertebrate riches. If they seem unduly avaricious, their arrival is entirely due to the fact that they have been frozen out of their native heaths of Scandinavia and northern Russia and here they seek winter solace.

The vigour of these new invaders contrasts starkly with other arrivals which appear less aggressive and altogether more peaceful. Indeed, there is a majesty and magical mysticism about the whooper swans that are sailing in from Iceland like so many fine galleons in full sail. Their arrival is signaled by softer voices which flute gently and contrast starkly with the sound of the raucous geese and the harsh ‘chacking’ of the fieldfares. Theirs is an altogether quieter audio dimension compared with that of the northern thrushes. These are, of course, the true wild swans of our winter months and as such, they are considerably more athletic than their more sedentary, heavier cousins, the mute swans.

Man has always had a fascination for swans as witness the artwork of our cave-dwelling ancestors who depicted them in their drawings and clearly admired their beauty. Or course, they must also have been very aware of their comings and goings in autumn and spring. These days, we may regard the etchings in stone of beasts of the chase, hares, bears and of course swans left by those early civilisations as being relatively crude, yet they are perhaps among the first signs of artistic talent in mankind because, after all, those cave drawings do have a beauty of their own.

And whereas tradition tells us that mute swans were often served up as the culinary centre-piece at medieval banquets in later times, apparently no such fate befell the true wild swans, such as whoopers and what later became known as Bewick’s swans.  We don’t generally see Bewick’s in Scotland for they winter in the deep south of England and places like the Netherlands. They also spend their summers in northern Russia whereas, the whoopers that winter here come from Iceland. Oddly enough, many years ago I saw a Bewick’s swan off the Ayrshire coast.  It had been colour marked which enabled the experts to identify it as a Bewick’s swan which, as far as I know, was the only one to have been seen in Scotland at that time.


There is recent evidence of people hunting the Bewick’s in those northern parts of Russia but clearly there is nothing in folk-lore stating that to kill one would bring ill-fortune to the slayer which is very much the case with regard to whooper swans.  The bad luck that is alleged to come to anyone guilty of harming a wild swan appears to be embodied in the folklore of several Continents.  However, Ireland does seem to be a particular source of such legends. In the Emerald Isle there has long been a belief that the souls of dead people are transferred to wild swans and a swan killed was assuredly a forecast that one of the local villagers would be likely to die imminently. Not surprisingly, there were also similar beliefs held in parts of Scotland’s Western Isles and similar legends existed in Serbia, in Wales, the Isle of Man and the ancient Kingdom of Strathclyde. In Germany and in Russia too there are the stories of swan maidens, beautiful damsels who were transformed into swans. Such stories also persist among the North Americans, the Spanish and in African and Arabic cultures.


It appears that ancient man has always recognized the difference between the almost domesticated mute swan and the more athletic Bewick’s and whooper wild swans. The newly arrived whoopers breed in the tundra of Iceland and whereas all over the world, mute swans seem to show a familiarity with mankind, always willing to share food with us along familiar river or loch-sides where on occasions they terrify people with their aggressive hissing, whooper swans are nothing like as approachable and shun close contact with humans. I would also suggest that whoopers, together with Bewick’s swans, are considerably more courageous than our mute swans. The very fact that whoopers ferry themselves the best part of a thousand miles across the hostile north Atlantic in autumn and back to Iceland in spring, makes them far more adventurous than the sedate mute.

And if those journeys seem hazardous, consider the ordeal it must be for the year’s young cygnets which, barely a few months old, are being called upon to make such terrifying journeys, Furthermore, the sense of weather conditions with which such birds are imbued, means that to avoid flying into the teeth of really hostile situations they are prepared to really go to the extreme and fly at heights in excess of thirty thousand feet. Whooper swans have been recorded at such altitudes on airline pilots’ radar and at that level, temperatures can drop to -50 degrees and there is a distinct shortage of oxygen. Of course, at times their journeys in the autumn are aided by the jet stream which may result in them travelling at speeds approaching one hundred miles per hour.

Apart from being obviously lighter, less bulky and more athletic than the sedentary mute swan, whooper swans are also easily recognized by their posture. The familiar graceful curve of the mute swan’s neck is more often than not replaced by an erect neck in the case of the whooper. The seer above the beak is also yellow in both the whooper and Bewick’s swan rather than orange and as you might realise, the whooper is more adept than its mute cousin when it comes to flying. As anyone who has watched a mute taking off from water, it will be seen that it needs a fairly long runway in order to become airborne but by comparison, the whooper swan can get into the air much more quickly and with less effort,

I well remember when a year or two ago, a whooper took up residence on one of our local lochs which was the permanent home of a pair of mute swans. The mute cob took umbrage and went to chase the intruder off and with feet pumping, wings raised, he launched a full-frontal water-borne attack but the whooper responded by taking off and flying to the other end of the loch. Soon the mute cob gave chase again only for the whooper to leave and then return to his original position. The cob again set off in pursuit but it was like a game of avian tennis which the mute cob was never going to win and in the end, he gave up and decided reluctantly to tolerate the presence of the whooper.

In a sense, the arrival of our migrant whooper swans completes the immigration set. Birds however, are always on the move and should we have a hard winter those fieldfares and redwings may move on towards the Mediterranean. According to the carol, there will certainly be six swans a swimming over Christmas, but the graceful fluting whooper swans will be with us until next spring.


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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods