What were these grace­ful swans with seem­ingly pure black beaks?

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - Rosa­mond Richard­son is an author and jour­nal­ist who also writes for The Coun­try­man, and her Wait­ing for the Al­bino Dun­nock will be pub­lished in spring 2017

Rosa­mond Richard­son re­calls the day she saw some ‘ex­otic’ swans

I DROVE DOWN to Boy­ton Marshes, and park­ing my car in a de­serted lay-by, walked into what seemed im­mea­sur­able vast­ness. The de­pop­u­lated land sinks ever lower and flat­ter, re­ced­ing into sky where reedbeds and marsh grasses meet the sea wall. On the edge of the River Ore, winter rem­nants of Sea Laven­der tint grey mud­flats of a wide es­tu­ary that curls away into the sky. In 360° of flat­ness the only sign of hu­man ac­tiv­ity in a sink­ing hori­zon is a World War II pill­box and dis­tant arable fields. Pock­ets of far­away wood­land, trees in leaf­less sil­hou­ette, merge with the beige mist of win­ter­ing reeds. Lines of dykes lead through tidal pools of grey water that re­flect the sky. Pip­ing of Red­shank echoed from the mud­flats. The bub­bling song of Curlews punc­tu­ated long si­lences. I had never felt so far from any­where in Eng­land, so alone in an open space with no hu­man habi­ta­tion in sight. It was some­thing to do with the flat­ness. Lap­wings were fly­ing around with Star­lings, feed­ing by a dis­tant stretch of water along with Canada Geese and Grey­lags. As I walked, I could make out Gad­wall, Wi­geon, Teal, Cor­morants, egrets, and Mute Swans in this un­spoiled place. A sin­gle Curlew was stab­bing at the ground with down curved bill be­fore tak­ing off to­wards a tidal pool with a ‘wheep wheep’ cry, the trem­bling mi­nor-key note float­ing over the marsh. There is no equiv­a­lent sound in na­ture: haunt­ing, plain­tive, wist­ful. A flock of Lap­wings flew in to join him, cry­ing the ‘peeoooo peeeou’ call that gives them the al­ter­na­tive Pee­wit name. I stopped to look at dis­tant swans, to see if there were Whoop­ers or Bewick’s among them, mi­grants from the far north, win­ter­ing among flocks of our res­i­dent swans. One pair in this flock of mostly Mute Swans stood out: I watched them for a while, hop­ing, but they were too large to be Bewick’s. Whoop­ers, pos­si­bly? I was search­ing for a patch of yel­low on the bill, but as far as I could see the beaks were pure black. These two swans had very long, slim, straight necks which, as I watched, they stretched up to full ex­ten­sion, par­al­lel to each other, eye to eye, bill to bill. A ren­dezvous of two wa­ter­birds whose grace­ful de­port­ment and ex­treme dig­nity ex­pressed a pu­rity, a nat­u­ral pride, with no sug­ges­tion of ar­ro­gance. The mas­sively long neck, the heavy, teardrop-shaped body. Af­ter a while, the two swans set­tled into the marsh grasses, purest white in the wa­tery green, in tan­dem one be­hind the other, heads erect, shiny black eyes alert, big body half hid­den in fo­liage. Then one moved to its feet and opened its wings mo­men­tar­ily, wide, wide wings with long-fin­gered pin­ions. Curl­ing its neck as if in a dance, com­mu­ni­cat­ing some­thing in­ti­mate and un­known to hu­man lan­guage, it folded its wings to set­tle again. There is no word for the white­ness of a swan. Watch­ing the swans in that quiet place sat­is­fied an ur­gent ap­petite. Man can­not live by bread alone. On my way back, I saw the only two hu­man be­ings I met that day, and although un­will­ing to break my si­lence, I was in luck. A man and his wife, bird­watch­ers both, were look­ing through a scope. What I had been look­ing at ear­lier were Trum­peter Swans. These birds are never seen in Bri­tain, the man said. Found only in North Amer­ica, he went on, and non-mi­gra­tory, they don’t move far in winter and cer­tainly not across the At­lantic, so in Eng­land they are found only as es­capes from cap­tiv­ity. The twitch­ers of Bri­tain had come rush­ing down ear­lier in the year to see them, then dis­cov­ered they were es­capees so went away again and left them to the si­lence of the marshes. The most re­gal, the most per­fect of all the swans, Trum­peter Swans are the largest ex­tant species of wa­ter­fowl, and one of the heav­i­est birds ca­pa­ble of flight (the largest recorded male Trum­peter was six feet long with a wing­span in ex­cess of 10 feet and weigh­ing an out­ra­geous 38lbs). Its neck can be twice as long as the neck of a Bewick’s, and the call sounds just like a trum­pet. Look­ing at this pair, I had been watch­ing two crea­tures who mate for life: if his part­ner dies, the male may never pair up again. Trum­peter Swans were al­most ex­tinct by the late 20th Cen­tury, hunted heav­ily both as game and a source of feath­ers. The sight of the swans on a drab Fe­bru­ary day in the mid­dle of nowhere, do­ing noth­ing much ex­cept do­ing what swans do, is im­printed on my mem­ory as a sim­ple, un­clut­tered mo­ment in time and out of time.

The most re­gal, the most per­fect of all the swans, Trum­peter Swans are the largest ex­tant species of wa­ter­fowl, and one of the heav­i­est birds ca­pa­ble of flight

WILD BUGLERS Trum­peter Swans are the North Amer­i­can equiv­a­lent of the Whooper Swan

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