What were these graceful swans with seemingly pure black beaks?
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