After all the comings and goings of the festive season, it’s nice to get into a proper rhythm again. At the time of writing, the December snows have almost all gone, leaving patches behind the dykes, as a threat of unfinished business.
Just after the New Year, I had a drive up the Yarrow Valley to Moffat and was surprised at the amount of ice still on the lochs. The eastern end of St Mary’s was almost completely frozen, but the choppier western end was virtually ice-free. The Loch of the Lowes was nearly all ice-bound but a small corner near the reedy inflow was clear and I stopped to look at the swans feeding there.
A few were mutes but the majority were migrant whooper swans, all the way from the frozen north – perhaps they would have been better staying put!
Whoopers are easy to distinguish from our resident mute swans, by the colour of their bill. Mutes are orange and black while the whoopers are yellow and black. Other differences to look for are the whooper’s straight neck compared with the curved of the mute and the pointed tail which is held horizontally, while the mute holds the tip pointed upwards.
Vocally they are very different too. The mute lives up to its name and only really becomes vocal when under threat, but whooper swans are highly vocal. Sonorous bugling calls are used during aggressive encounters, and softer “contact” noises are used to communicate between paired birds and families.
Calls accompanying pre-flight head-bobbing are also important for maintaining pair and family cohesion.
Several types of threat display are seen in winter to establish the dominance in the flock, ranging from head-low threats and pecks to more dramatic neck-stretching and wing-flapping, resulting occasionally in physical combat.
In flight they can also be separated by noise. The familiar noisy wing beats of the mute are absent in its northern cousin.
Almost 7,000 whooper swans visit our shores during the winter and there are many good places to see them in the Borders. They can often be seen grazing with mutes in arable fields along the banks of our rivers, particularly the Tweed near Rutherford and the Teviot haughs near Nisbet. However, they can turn up on virtually any loch or pond and usually favour the same locations every year.
The next time you see a big group of white birds in a field or on a loch, stop and check them over. You might just be looking at the national bird of Finland!