There are several species of swan in Britain but the most common is the Mute Swan – so-named as it has no call – though is very good at hissing, and even an occasional grunt.
This Blog is part of the DIVERSIFLY project: For more details on the project go here
Caroline Gill sent this account through to us with her kind permission to reprint it here. Thank you Caroline! For the photos of both swans and Ipswich Waterfront – and this piece of visual writing x:
Wild Surprise on the Ipswich Waterfront – Caroline Gill
The balcony of our rented apartment overlooked the spanking white sails of a modern 180-berth marina. It was always a thrill to hear the honking of geese as small skeins flew over the water at sunset. We spent nine months in that temporary crow’s nest back in 2011, before moving out into a leafier landscape. My husband’s office, however, is situated in a choice position on the Ipswich Waterfront, and we are often in the area, joining friends in the cafés and attending events.
I am conscious, though, as I set off on this particular April afternoon that I appear to be in a barren environment. I manage to locate a few reassuring tufts of grass and the odd clump of dandelion. I turn to read the text on the Ipswich Society blue plaque, and am reminded that it was right here in this nautical corner that the illustrator Edward Ardizzone ‘gained inspiration’ for his distinctive dockside scenes. His characters lived for me in the Little Tim storybooks of my 1960s childhood.
The water ripples away gently on my left, but I feel hemmed in by concrete on the three remaining sides. Yacht reflections and the chequered facades of university buildings shimmer in the sunlight. Something is missing: I keep an ear open for birdsong as I pass the student bar. No sparrows. No wagtails. Not a single magpie to be seen.
There must be pigeons, and indeed I soon spot a couple of scruffy specimens, nestling in a corner of dockside detritus. My immediate thought is ‘yet more grey’; but as I look again, a fluffy white feather lands near my feet. I peer up cautiously and see a third pigeon, with iridescent hues of rose pink and jade green shimmering on its neck.
Fishermen’s faces stare out at me from a poster display, pasted on hoardings beside the graffiti image of a blue and red giraffe. The sound of traffic increases as I draw close to the roundabout by Stoke Bridge. Wolsey’s Gate, a Tudor remnant of the Cardinal’s ambitious but thwarted plans for his educational establishment, is just a street away over to my right, near the approach to one of the most congested junctions in this part of town.
I veer to the left and approach the edge of the island site. I sense a sudden ‘ah’ in my throat as I inhale. My eyes are instantly and instinctively attracted to the graceful forms of two Mute Swans. What an unexpected discovery. Seconds later I adjust the zoom on my camera. With a pictorial record in the bag, I check the lower legs of the birds; and, no, perhaps surprisingly, there do not seem to be any Darvic or metal rings on them. The cool waters of the river Orwell lap softly around their webbed feet.
My path is littered with empty shells and there is squawking overhead. A Herring Gull struts towards me on pink legs. It grabs what looks like a mussel, splitting it open on the marina, before turning tail with its edible prize. I am hungry, too, and have cut it fine for tea in the café. But all is well: I order a large slice of coffee cake and join my friends in the window seat, reflecting on the uplifting presence of those wild and regal swans.
Bill Bailey , in his Remarkable Guide to British Birds writes this:
For hundreds of years, swans were the property of whoever owned the land they were on. So valuable were they as a meal that their wings were broken so they couldn’t fly off, and a little chunk or ‘nick’ was taken out of their beak to show who was the owner… Any swans that didn’t have this marker were deemed to be the property of the crown… These royal swans were similarly hobbled, so for about 500 years no one in Britain ever saw a swan fly.
Here is a poem by the wonderful poet Keith Chandler, reprinted here with his kind permission. Fair Acre Press will be publishing his next collection, following The Grandpa Years’ critical success; plus an extract of this poem can be found in Beyond Spring: Wanderings through Nature by Matthew Oates.
Chance – Keith Chandler
What on earth? Across the Severn
high against the gathering night
a flotilla of lights flashing in time
like a Christmas decoration but flying fast.
Then we saw: a distant skein of swans.
Must be. Not the garrulous honking of geese
but silent, a UFO. Not landing lights
but the repeated upbeat of wings
catching the last of a dying sun.
On off…off on…
Beauty pulsing into the dark.
What kind of luck
could bring such phenomena together:
sunset; distances from and between;
synchronised strobing of wings?
What kind of luck could bring home to me –
obtuse, short sighted as I am –
you who notice such things?
I don’t know about you – but when I think of Canada Geese I see them grazing like a herd of cows more often than the more romantic hearing of them in the sky – though a Flying V of geese is always a cool sight. They take over the grass in parks – spreading out loudly like a bunch of hooligans and spread their shit all over it so any idea of a quiet picnic or lie down vanishes immediately.
There are several different geese in Britain but the Canada Goose is the ubiquitous species. Its slow wing beats move its large brown body, long black neck and white face patch through the air, usually in flocks. Its handsome appearance led to its introduction, on purpose, 250 years ago – as an ornamental bird. But guess what, a few escaped from their Victorian collectors and established themselves as wild birds. “Life finds a way” – wise words from Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park!
They can form flocks of up of 2000, outside the breeding season.
Courtship ceremonies include neck-stretching with the head and neck held out parallel to the ground.
The female lays 5 or 6 eggs in a ground depression she has lined with dead leaves; after 28 days the dirt-white eggs hatch – the goslings soon leave the nest – and can fly within six weeks.
Photo by Matt Timbers
Here is part of a poem I found on the Scottish Poetry Library website, simply called Canada Geese by Robert Davidson – the whole poem can be read here
In they come as though they must scatter
the geese on the sand like marbles, but now
their dropped wings lift them and bring them
down again, slower now, one after the other,
feet planing across the water, all together
to sit down on it, glide along the surface and paddle out
onto the sand, to become a feathery conference
of webs, wings, necks and beaks, all crying together.
Here are some images I have found online:
And here are a few links with some more information :
The Swan Sanctuary on diseases in the Mute Swan
Pitchcare website on Canada Geese – Britain’s most hated bird?
This Blog is part of a series of Blogs that are part of the Fair Acre Press project – DIVERSIFLY: everyday encounters with the birds of Britain’s towns and cities. For more details on the project go here