During a litter pick of the Levenmouth Hide on Monday morning I heard a familiar sound. The ‘hoot-hoot-hoot’ of whooper swans! These magnificent swans come to the UK to winter, and I always relish their arrival.
The majority of the Whooper Swans we get here in the UK breed in Iceland. The Icelandic population of Whooper Swan winter primarily in the UK, this is thought to be the longest sea-crossing of any swan species in the world! An 800 mile flight is very impressive, and it is even more impressive when you think of the young birds from this year making the perilous journey.
Whooper Swans differ from their Mute Swan cousins. They have a bright yellow bill, are much more vocal and look slightly more elegant. There is no difference between the male and female which are known as the Cob and Pen. The juvenile birds from this year are a lovely, dusky grey colour and the bill is an off-white/grey colour. It takes the bird around 2 years to get a fully yellow bill.
Another confusion species is the Bewick Swan, although these swans are very rare in Scotland. They are 1/3 smaller than a Whooper Swan and their bill has more black than yellow. Bewick swans (also known as Tundra swans) come from Siberia and the call of these swans is much more high pitched, almost like an excited dog! The chances are, if you are seeing a Swan with a yellow bill in Scotland, it will be a whooper!
Whooper Swans tend to travel in family groups, so you often get a large influx over a few days. Last week there were none and on Monday I had 67! Interestingly enough, of these 67 Whoopers, only 5 of which were juvenile. I wonder if this influx was mainly of non-breeders.
These swans are truly wild, often much more wary and timid than our pond dwelling, seed and bread eating Mute Swans. Whooper Swans are an amber listed species, meaning that their wintering and breeding numbers have been declining in the UK over the last 30 years (Whoopers do breed in Scotland, although in extremely small numbers). Although it is not all bad news as it seems that the population in Iceland is increasing!
I love Whoopers, they symbolise winter for me. Their vocal hoots often accompany frost and a low lying mist on a dawning winters day.
Next time you are out and about on the Loch or a local wetland, have a look (and listen) for these magnificent birds, they are hard to miss and a joy to spot! The numbers will gradually increase throughout Winter and we can have up to 200 on the Loch.