Swans are probably the most recognisable and familiar birds to everyone in the UK. Their tolerance to humans means that they can be found on most waterbodies in the UK. Of course, in this instance I am speaking about the resident Mute Swan. A large white bird, with an orange bill – pretty unmistakable and instantly familiar. Mainly because almost everyone when they were young went down to the park to feed the swans and ducks. It is easy to take the humble Mute Swan for granted, I mean; they are almost everywhere in the UK! (Apart from the very north of Scotland). However, they are truly beautiful creatures – and most certainly not ‘mute’ as the name suggests. They grunt, hiss and snort like nothing on earth and in the spring when you get a bit close to their cygnets – you’ll know about it! A disconcerting hiss and flap of the wings will surely deter any predator, including me! They also have a lovely musical flight – their wingbeats make a diagnostic throbbing sound which is really hard to describe evidently!
Known for their elegance, beauty, grace and of course; fidelity. Mute Swans are rather symbolic creatures. They do indeed mate for life, although cases of ‘divorce’ have been observed albeit very rarely. Also, if a partner does die, then the widowed Mute Swan will move on to try and find another mate. Mostly, however, they are faithful and loyal to their partners. You can tell the male (cob) and female (pen) apart in the breeding season by the size of the ‘knob’ above their bill. The males have a larger……..’protuberance’ than the female.
There is of course the famous urban legend surrounding Mute Swans. No, they cannot break your arm or leg with their wings! Loch Leven NNR is a great site to see Mute Swan, and one of the best in the country to see large numbers of wintering/moulting Mute Swan! We can see up to 1200 Mute Swan on the Loch – truly a fantastic wildlife spectacle. These large numbers are usually in late summer when we are seeing large flocks in moult. We can also see around 800 wintering on the reserve. We do have a few pairs of swans breeding on the loch as well. A Swan census hasn’t been done on the loch in a while, but I would imagine we have about c30 pairs breeding. Cygnets are a prominent feature on the loch in the summer and you can hear their adorable squeaking calls at different points around the trail.
Another familiar Swan that is a winter feature on the Loch is the Whooper (pronounced ‘hooper’) Swan. This Swan gets its name from its noisy, honking-hooping call; a call that epitomises winter at Loch Leven NNR. These migratory swans arrive from their breeding grounds in Iceland in autumn and spend the winter in the UK. They will do the 500 mile flight at once and can fly at around 6000 feet! Around 11,000 of these Swans arrive to winter and here at Loch Leven our peak count has been around 700-800 but we usually see on average peak of around 350 on the Loch each winter.
Whooper Swan can be told by their mute cousins from their yellow bill and noisy calls. If you are walking around the loch, especially on the east side – Grahamstone, Carsehall, Levenmouth and Findatie. Then listen out for the honking of these majestic birds!
Whooper Swans are highly gregarious and travel in family groups. The young birds can be distinguished by having grey plumage and an off-white bill.
A large majority of them can be found during the day feeding in the fields that surround the loch, they then return to the loch at dusk to roost. The numbers will dwindle down throughout the winter and come spring time we will be left with our resident breeding Mute Swan as all of the Whoopers will be back in Iceland!
Make sure not to take swans for granted! Earlier this year I enjoyed some cracking non-territorial behaviour by a pair of cob mute swans having a territory disagreement. These disagreements can normally turn into a bit of a barmy, with the loser usually being sent home packing! However, this dispute was solved non-violently, after this encounter the ‘loser’ just swam off… obviously his dancing skills were no match compared to his rivals. Check this out!
Just swanning around….? I’ll get my coat!