Swan songs and rising tides

Outdoor Living

MUTE NOT MEEK Not all welcome the whooper swan. Here, a resident mute swan on Lough Carra does his best to drive away an Icelandic visitor. Pic: Michael Kingdon

Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

It was just on dusk that our visitors arrived. They were only two, which I found disappointing. I heard their soft, musical calls and rushed outside just in time to see them pass overhead, dropping along the way, and knew they must land in the bay beyond the trees.
We don’t get a great many whooper swans on Lough Carra, and of those that do call by not many choose to stay, at least not at this end of the lake. They like good grazing free of disturbance, which they find a short distance to the north where a rising water table forms seasonal lakes in the midst of rich farmland.
I imagine these two travel weary. They arrive from lands far north; ringing projects have the great majority, if not all of Irish whoopers originating from Iceland. In bird terms this is not a long migration. The initial 800km or so trip can be completed in as little as 36 hours, non stop. Yet it is still remarkable in its consistency, and even more in our day for the fact these birds appear to be increasing in number.
Every few years a swan census takes place, with an army of volunteers visiting known whooper wintering sites where almost every one of these birds is counted. The National Parks and Wildlife Service organised the Eighth International Swan Census for January 2020, when a total of 19,111 whooper swans were recorded in the Republic. According to Birdwatch Ireland this, together with the 4,644 recorded north of the border, is the highest number on record and a 27 percent increase from the previous census.
At the same time the Bewick’s swan, a similar but smaller species that breeds in eastern Europe, has virtually disappeared from this county. A century ago Bewicks were the predominant migratory swan species here. In the 1950s Robin Ruttledge found large flocks from Belmullet south into Galway, with at least 200 in the Moy valley close to Foxford. Now there are none.
One reason for the disappearance of the dainty Bewick’s swan is the phenomenon know as ‘short stopping’. We know that hard weather pushes migratory birds west and south. This accounts for the greater numbers of curlew, woodcock and wildfowl we encounter during severe winters. On the other hand, less-trying conditions mean the birds don’t need to move as far – and why would they if they don’t have to?
We might think this habit of stopping short of traditional destinations would account for the increased numbers of whooper swans in this country. Ireland is a first stop for many birds that move on to Britain, and if conditions here are to their liking they might well be reluctant to keep going. But census results from the UK show they also have a greatly increased wintering population. The encouraging truth is, the whooper is on the way up.
As winter progresses these birds will become more prominent. A spell of cold will gather them into larger flocks, and at times we may be treated to the sight of several dozen feeding together. Thirty years ago I watched flocks of geese thousands strong feeding on the stubble fields of eastern Scotland. To see acres of them take to the air at dusk was simply incredible – a tide of geese, it was. I often wondered what it must be to see the whoopers congregating in Iceland before they set out.
Even now, to see 40 or 50 taking to the air in a cacophony of sound is an extraordinary, stirring experience.
To watch our lonely pair is still rewarding. Their calls are a winter bonus, their migration, while no longer a mystery, still a marvel.
A good deal has been learned about the lives of these birds, much of it from the colour-coded leg rings fitted by researchers. In observing a number of whoopers we might discern one of these, either orange or yellow, both of which have black lettering, or red with white lettering. Binoculars or a spotting scope will be needed, for these wary birds will not tolerate disturbance. Repeated attempts to get close enough to read the rings unaided will soon move them elsewhere.
If you get to read the lettering on the leg ring, Birdwatch Ireland will be able to let you know where your swan is from and where in the world it has been.

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.