Singing swans

This week at Forvie has seen the Reserve awash with swans. Not the regular Mute Swans you see on your local park lake, but Whooper Swans, wild and wary, genuine migrants from Iceland. The first ones arrived in mid-October – you can read about them here – and this last few days has seen a major influx of these magnificent birds, with upwards of 350 present.

Whooper swan – note the black-tipped yellow bill and straight neck…
…compared with the familiar Mute Swan, with its black-based orange bill and S-shaped neck.

Arguably the easiest way to recognise a Whooper Swan is by its voice. Unlike our resident Mute Swans, which don’t say much other than the occasional snort, hiss or grunt, Whoopers are extremely vocal. Their calls have a bugling, far-carrying quality, and at long range on a still day can almost be taken for distant human voices. However, in chorus they produce an unmistakable and beautiful sound, a true sound of the wild. That’s why in several European languages, the bird’s common name translates as ‘singing swan’. And the Ythan Estuary at Forvie is currently resounding to swan music.

Whoopers arriving high from the north
On final approach, flaps down, air brakes deployed!

While a small number of Whooper Swans will overwinter with us here at Forvie, most of the birds currently present will simply use the Reserve as a staging-post before heading further south. Many spend the winter in eastern England, where the sugar-beet and potato industries inadvertently provide them with a rich source of carbohydrates to help them through the cold days. The swans love to feed on the tops and tails of the beets, left behind by the harvesting machinery, and on any leftover tatties once the frost has softened them up. But up here they’re content with spilt grain in the barley-stubble, plus whatever roots and tubers they can find in the wet fields surrounding the estuary. Then it’s back onto the water to preen and roost.

On the water for a wash-and-brush-up between feeding trips

Another thing that sets Whooper Swans apart from their Mute cousins is their sociable nature. Whereas Mute Swans tend to be found in pairs – often aggressively chasing off any others – Whoopers are much more commonly found in groups, sometimes substantial ones. And within these groups, it’s often possible to pick out individual families.

Juvenile Whoopers – i.e. birds hatched this summer – can be easily recognised by their pale grey plumage and pink bills. The young birds tend to stick together with their siblings and parents, and it’s not uncommon to see mum, dad and up to five or six young together. They will stay together as a family right through their first winter, with the young going their separate ways when they’ve completed the return journey to Iceland in the spring. The flocks currently present at Forvie contain a high proportion of juveniles, perhaps indicating a good breeding season this summer.

A pair of Whoopers with their youngster behind them – note the grey head and pinkish bill

Of course, such an epic migration is hard work for the youngsters – they undertake the journey from Iceland to Scotland non-stop, reaching heights of up to 29,000 feet(!) – so it’s not surprising that many of them need a good rest when they arrive here!

Four sleepy juvenile Whoopers

Meanwhile, the adults are busy indulging in a bit of displaying and social interaction. This usually involves much posturing, flapping, bobbing of heads and a lot of noise.

Adult Whoopers doing their thing

The spectacle on the estuary and on Cotehill Loch at dawn and dusk is magical just now, and I can’t recommend it highly enough if you’re within reach of the area. After all, the birds will probably only be here in these numbers for a couple of weeks, before moving on again. So hurry along to Forvie and enjoy some singing swans – you can thank us later!

Whooper Swans on Cotehill Loch at dusk

Thanks are owed to Catriona Reid at Muir of Dinnet for the swan photos!