On a frosty night at Forvie…

Finally, after what must have been the mildest October since the beginning of time, the opening week of November delivered the first frost of the autumn. As last Thursday drew to a close, clear skies and a lull in the wind at last allowed temperatures to drop below freezing, lending a brittle crunch to the grass and fallen leaves underfoot. It also set the scene for a memorable evening on the Reserve, with an enjoyable crispness to the air, and a fabulous sunset as a backdrop.

A golden Forvie sunset
The Flooded Piece at dusk
Going, going…

On most clear evenings here, we are treated to the spectacle of the ‘evening flight’, where huge flocks of Pink-footed Geese commute from their daytime feeding grounds to their overnight roost on the estuary or one of the local lochs. On occasion, especially in late autumn and early winter, the geese are accompanied by a much smaller, yet highly vocal and still impressive, flight of Whooper Swans. Sure enough, on this fine evening, we heard the deep, bass bugling of the swans mixing with the treble babble of the geese. But something tonight was different.

Pink-footed Geese after sundown on Thursday

With the sun already set, and a two-thirds-full moon suspended over the North Sea, the swans didn’t, as expected, head for the estuary or Cotehill Loch (usually their favourite overnight stops). Instead, flock after flock set out on a south-south-easterly course, straight and unwavering, taking them out across the moon-glazed water and away over Aberdeen Bay. Rather than settling down for the night, they were leaving us.

Heading south-south-east…
They’re away!

South-south-east in a straight line from Forvie, by my reckoning, would eventually land you on the coast of north Norfolk. Right enough, large numbers of wild swans, including up to 12,500 Whoopers – 5% of the entire world population – spend the winter in the East Anglian fens, and this is likely to be the destination for many of the swans and geese that use Forvie as a service-station each autumn. I had always assumed (without any particular reasoning) that once they arrived in the UK from Iceland, the swans would make their onward journey southwards in a series of short hops, travelling by day rather than overnight. Seems I was wrong then – thereby proving once again that you never stop learning stuff, even after a lifetime of being interested in a subject.

Nightfall no barrier for travelling

Of course, it’s impossible to say for sure which route and destination lay ahead for the swans as they set out from Forvie that night. They might have just trundled down the coast to St Cyrus or Montrose, for instance, and stopped there. But this is where the scientist and the romantic in me occasionally bash heads. It’s not a great leap of the imagination to picture them crossing the Norfolk coast at dawn, their calls echoing across the saltmarsh below as they did so. And in support of my romantic long-haul theory, the clear, still, moonlit night would undoubtedly have presented them with perfect conditions for navigation and travelling.

Whoopers against the dusk

As a veteran myself of countless long journeys – frequently overnight – to visit family in distant southern counties, perhaps I identify with the travelling swans more than most. But they are possessed of other characteristics that we humans can relate to as well. Not only their voices, which are at once musical and conversational, but their sociable nature as well. As reserve manager Catriona has often said, there are few things that sound more forlorn than the call of a lone wild swan. These are creatures with family ties, just like us.

A sociable species, just like ourselves

Listen to a flock of Whoopers on migration, and you can hear the adults calling out encouragement to their youngsters: stick together, keep us in sight, don’t give up, we’ll make it eventually. The keen listener may also discern the voices of the young ones among the babble – often with a hoarse, cracked tone a bit like a teenager whose voice is beginning to break. Slow down dad, you’re flying too fast, where are we going, are we nearly there yet? OK, I’m anthropomorphising here, but again it’s not a huge leap of the imagination. They call loudly and frequently for good reason; again, like us, communication is of paramount importance to them.

Whooper family travelling together
Follow my leader

If you’re lucky enough to see a flock of Whooper Swans on the ground, it’s easy to separate the adults from the young: the former are gleaming white with a sharply-defined yellow-and-black pattern to the bill, while the latter are silver-grey with a pink-and-black shadow of the adult bill pattern. Consequently it’s easy to pick out family parties among a larger flock, and to see how successful each pair has been in the preceding breeding season. Some pairs will have just one or two cygnets; some, perhaps the younger or more inexperienced pairs, may not have any at all. But the really successful partnerships may have four, five or even six young in tow. Judging by what we’ve seen here in the last few days, their productivity appears to have been good this year, which will hopefully help to ensure we’ll still be enjoying ‘swan music’ at dusk here in years to come.

Mum, dad and youngster

As night finally fell on Thursday, the sunset melted away and the moon rose higher into the inky-blue-black sky; still the swan flight continued. Later on, a glimmer of aurora touched the northern horizon, and still the swan flight continued. This was a night to remember for sure.

Moon over sand loch
A hint of aurora to the north

A sharp frosty night in late autumn is one of life’s pleasures. But add a flight of wild swans, and the experience is elevated to a different level altogether. Now is the time to get out and sample it for yourself. Just mind and wrap up warm.