“A fore warning of colder nights sailed over the horizon with sirens honking... Whooper swans, three of them, turned a wide half-circle in the near dusk to come down to the grey waters of Lough Mask”
After one of the warmest Septembers on record; October has done its best to keep up the good work, nibbling away at the front end of winter with hours of gentle sunshine.
“Long may it last,” ventured my neighbour, from his leaning post at the garden gate. Our friendly farmer from up the road feels the same; his cows are hock-deep in lush grass and happy to spend their days abroad in the fields rather than be reduced to wandering the confines of the bare yard. They will be there soon enough.
A fore warning of colder nights sailed over the horizon with sirens honking, just to let us know they were there, in case we had missed the rasping beat of white-feathered wings. Whooper swans, three of them, turned a wide half-circle in the near dusk to come down to the grey waters of Lough Mask. A gang of mute swans, larger yet more graceful, were already congregated in the lee of several small islands, and to these the whooper family descended.
We watched them land, touching down one after another, skidding across the wavelets on wide spread, water-ski feet before using their breasts as a natural braking system.
Afloat, they eyed their mute cousins uneasily, recognising the differences in the way they held themselves, the way they swam, and the unmistakably hostile way they held their wings half aloft in a threatening display.
There was no violence. The posturing of the bigger birds was enough to send the new arrivals away from the area. They moved off to the west, swimming in a tight group and talking to each other with a wide variety of musical notes.
There will soon be more of their kind here, but only in the really cold weather will the larger flocks arrive. Then they are a fine sight, whether on the isolated lakes they choose for their winter homes or grazing on lonely hillsides in companies of thirty, forty birds and more. I should have liked to have seen the vast flocks of yesteryear.
The people of Greenland have left off harvesting the eggs of these birds for several decades (officially, at least), although I believe they are still great hunters. The Danish authorities have, in the past, contributed greatly to the increase of conservation, paying the Greenlanders more for ringing and recording their birds than the same birds were worth for food. The subsequent increase in the populations of whooper swans and some species of geese led to the unlikely scenario where grassland was being badly overgrazed by them.
It is hard to imagine swans doing damage to pasture in this country. Even so, not all who see these visitors feeding on late season grass offer them a welcome. It has long been thought the birds ruin the pasture for other livestock, so badly do they soil it. Yet, the internationally renowned author and ornithologist Jeffery Harrison notes that on the Scottish Isle of Gunna cattle were given to grazing right behind the flocks of geese that accumulated there, actually feeding on the droppings and surviving the winter in much better health than nearby cattle that were unable to benefit from the birds’ presence.
Further, according to the booklet Wild Geese and Agriculture produced by the Department of Agriculture in Scotland way back in 1971, ‘sheep actively follow geese…they eat the droppings and this way counteract a phosphate deficiency.’
The 500 strong flocks of both mute and whooper swans found in parts of the Scottish Highlands make the couple of dozen we occasionally bump into seem paltry. The numbers here are still important. We should be much worse off if they neglected to come at all.
There exist occasional records of whooper swans nesting in parts of Scotland, generally in remote areas infrequently visited by humans, and I once watched a pair on a little hill lough in the Nephin mountain range until they finally left in mid spring, long after the rest of their flock had departed. I had hoped they would breed there, but the calling was evidently too great and they disappeared one night, into the west.
There are enough of these little lakes tucked away in the hills of north Mayo to harbour a host of uncommon birds. If the weather holds, I must go and see what I can find.