As mentioned in a recent column, the Borders seem to be hosting good numbers of winter visiting whooper swans this year.
Many readers will be familiar with seeing these large white birds either grazing in arable fields, often close to rivers or swimming around in lochs and larger ponds.
They tend to be seen in large groups rather than singles and pairs and will often consist of several family groups moving around together.
They are easy to tell from our resident mute swans by their yellow beaks (mutes are orange) and they tend to have straighter necks. The other main difference is the noise they make. Whoopers make a far-carrying trumpeting noise, especially when alarmed, while mutes, as their name implies, are mainly silent. In flight, Whoopers’ wing beats don’t give off the same “wou wou” sound as the mutes, whose eerie rhythmic beats can be heard a long way off.
They breed in subarctic Eurasia, further south than Bewicks in the taiga zone.
Whooper swans have to fly about 500 miles to get from Iceland to Scotland. These are probably the longest overseas flights undertaken by any swan species.
For the whooper swans that make these journeys every year, there are no places to stop and rest – it’s a direct flight.
Whooper swans make these journeys with their young, who can be as little as 12 weeks old. On the way they have to cope with extreme weather, avoid hunters and, power lines and wind farms.
They pair for life and their current cygnets will stay with them all winter, when they are sometimes joined by offspring from previous years.
When whooper swans prepare to take off as a flock, they use a variety of signalling movements to communicate with each other. These movements include head bobs, head shakes, and wing flaps and influence whether the flock will take flight and if so, which individual will take the lead.
So if you are approaching a group with photography in mind and the heads start bobbing – get ready, because within the next few seconds they will be off. Whooper swans are much admired in Europe where it is the national bird of Finland and is featured on the Finnish 1 euro coin. Musical utterances by whooper swans at the moment of death have even been suggested as the origin of the term “swan song”.
Keep your eyes peeled during the coming winter months in our area for these fascinating visitors from colder climes.