The whooper has landed

Wild swans have arrived from the frozen tundra wastes to feast and bask in the relative warmth of a British winter.

IT IS around now that thousands of winter tourists will begin to flood into Britain. After a long flight from frozen northern wastes, Bewick and whooper swans are now touching down to bask in the comparative warmth of our winter.

Unlike their familiar resident cousin, the mute, these long-distance migrants - often referred to as "wild" swans by ornithologists - choose to split their year between the vast wastes of the Arctic and waterlogged British farmland. Whoopers are the larger, and though they are about the same size as a mute swan, they swim with a much more upright neck and head and have yellow, rather than orange, bills. Also, unlike mutes they never raise their wings above their backs and, when in flight, they make no "singing" noise: simply a rhythmic swishing.

Thanks to their yellow bills, at a distance a group of Bewicks can easily be mistaken for whoopers but, in reality, they are much smaller. The simplest way to distinguish them is by their calls (whoopers "bugle", while Bewicks call like geese). Also, they have shorter necks which they are more inclined to arch. From now until spring both will be a familiar sight at a handful of our best wetland reserves, where they will remain until lengthening days draw them back to the frozen wastes.

At first glance this may seem like a curious way to divide your year. Why would any creature - let alone a bird with all the problems of keeping eggs warm - opt to breed in the chilly Arctic summer? In fact, the answers are relatively simple.

The great attraction of a summer near the poles is linked to daylight. While the tropics may bask in a seasonless year of steady temperatures, days are always about 12 hours long. The further north or south you go, however, the more elastic daylight becomes. The result is that animals breeding in these regions have far more time to search for food.

A good demonstration of this is the peregrine falcon which, as a global species, makes direct comparisons easy. Pairs breeding in the tropics typically raise only one youngster a year; British residents average two or three; while the migratory tundra subspecies can manage up to five. In the case of the Bewick and whooper swans this tactic is also highly successful. They are among the few true migrants capable of making long- distance flights to such remote areas. Also, as large birds they have the body weight to sustain the frequent cold snaps that occur even in midsummer. This means that for six months they cash in on the many tundra pools erupting with insect and other invertebrate life and the explosion of hardy grasses and flowers, making the most of 22-hour days. All this acts as the natural equivalent of a giant free buffet for the swans.

There are other appeals, too. As large birds they are relatively safe from most predators. Apart from a handful of Arctic foxes and skuas, they face few risks on their tundra breeding-grounds. All this results in breeding pairs - which mate for life - raising four or five youngsters.

When, in October, the first snows force them to look for pastures new, the family flies south as a group. It continues to stick together throughout the winter, splitting up only in spring when the youngsters reach sexual maturity, although most don't breed until the following year. Normally the annual arrival of the swans would be almost finished by now, but this year is unusual.

Whoopers have arrived in force somewhat earlier than normal, but the reverse is true for Bewicks. Normally the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT) would expect at least 1,000 birds at its Welney reserve, while at its Slimbridge sanctuary there are only about a dozen birds - well down on the normal 60. This disruption is due entirely to the weather, which has been dominated by westerly gales. These strong headwinds have seriously hampered the influx of Bewicks. In addition, thanks to flooding, Dutch farmers have lost much of their potato crop, which lies rotting in semi- submerged fields. Root crops are an important part of the Bewick's winter fare and the flocks that should arrive here any day have been delayed, feasting on the unexpected bonanza on the other side of the Channel.

Conversely, however, the winds have helped the whoopers. Normally Britain gets few whoopers because it is at the southern extremity of their range, but because of the strong tailwinds this year, their two prime wintering sites, Martin Mere in Suffolk and Welney in Norfolk, are now close to reserve records, with roughly 1,000 birds at each.

For the next four months, there is ample opportunity to watch our biggest and most spectacular winter migrants feeding on the flood plains of the East Coast and Severn Estuary.

Visit the WWT's Slimbridge Reserve near Gloucester (01453 890333) or Welney on the Wash (01353 860711). There are floodlit swan feeds Sat and Sun evenings all winter and the Trust also runs a pounds 25 sponsorship scheme of ringed birds

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent