Tag Archives: swans

Winds from the east

It is the winds from the east, and the north east, which bring winter where I live. Blowing in from Siberia and the Arctic, these winds also bring migrating swans. Bewick swans spend the summer on the Russian tundra, where they raise their young. They migrate to the UK for the winter, flying at night, using the stars for guidance. Young swans make their first journey with parents so as to learn how to do it. There’s more information here – https://www.wwt.org.uk/conservation/saving-wetlands-and-wildlife/saving-wildlife/science-and-action/uk-species/bewicks-swan/

For about three years, I lived in Slimbridge, and then on the canal in the vicinity of Slimbridge – the location of the first Wildlife and Wetland Trust site whose link I shared above. This site was established as a reserve by Peter Scott (son of Scott of the Antarctic) because of the migrating swans. They come to feed on the banks of the Severn during the winter.

While I was living in the village, an older neighbour told me how, when he was a child, the swans would come in incredible numbers and you’d see them flying round the church spire. Swan numbers, like pretty much everything else in the natural world, have been dwindling. It’s now rare to see a migrating swan coming in on a wind from the east early in the morning. It’s happened to me a few times now, and it’s an experience I feel deeply grateful for.

The coming of these winds marks a turn towards colder weather. When it happens varies – the first swan this year showed up in October. Most are coming in now. The colder the weather, the more swans come to Slimbridge – there are other sites migrating swans go to, but the harsher the winter, the further south they head.

Even though I no longer live in Slimbridge and no longer see the bewicks grazing in the fields, they are very much on my mind when the winds come. And this year, I’ve seen several pairs of swans coming in over the hills in the early morning, no doubt heading towards the river.

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A swan wind

We were up long before dawn, walking out into the darkness. A half-moon sat high in the sky, occasionally shrouded by clouds. For once, the roads were largely empty and the early day peaceful and silent as we set off up the hill. Already the darkness in the east had softened to tones of blue. As we climbed the hill, blue faded slowly into a pale yellow suggestive of coming light.

There were street lamps, we did not walk in darkness, but the surrounding landscape was largely hidden as we started. By the halfway point on the hill, the Severn plain had grown visible, a landscape of greys with the distant hills little more than rumour.

We came off the road, onto the grass, still climbing. In nearby trees, an owl hooted, calling the end to the hunting night just as larks in the grasses began to fly and sing out to the day. We paused to reflect that this would have given Shakespeare a bit of a headache. Larks are so often thought of as summer birds, but they still fly the hill top through the winter, singing their rippling melodies. From nearby a buzzard called and we heard a raven.

There came a point when we suddenly rose high enough to enter the wind. It was an icy blast, coming from the east. At this time of year, the east wind brings us snow, and also migrating swans from Russia. They’ve been slow to arrive at Slimbridge, the wet, southerly winds we’ve been having make their long journey difficult indeed. I thought of them, and wondered if they would be flying in.

By the time we reached the hilltop, light had permeated the vale, bringing greens to the fields, although the hills remained grey and mysterious. We walked to the barrow, but it was too cold in the wind to stay still for long. Turning to face the dawn, we walked back, watching the skyline pink and glow with the coming day.

Coming down the hill, the sound of wings stopped us in our tracks. Not all birds are identifiable in flight, but one kind of wing whistles as it moves, making a distinctive sound that carries far. There, passing over the hill, were two swans, flying from the east towards Slimbridge. From that distance, we could not see their beaks (orange for the resident mute, yellow for the migrating bewicks and whoopers). Given the time of day, the wind direction and the size, I think they were bewicks, with a few miles left to go of their epic journey down from the arctic tundra. It was a remarkable moment, and while I have seen the migratory swans many times before, I have never previously seen them flying in.

It is not quite what we had planned for today, but this morning has been a blessing. We saw a kestrel as we were coming down off the hill. Seagulls were flying up from the Severn to spend the day in the hills, as is their habit. Then, the peal of church bells, no doubt for an early morning service. We walked down to a town no longer lit by streetlights, but waking into action. Cars on the road. Cheery greetings from strangers. The smell of unspeakable things being done to turkeys. It’s not my festival, but it can bring out warmth and conviviality in people, and that’s no bad thing.

Now, to work, and cook, and see what the rest of the day brings.


Swan Mysteries

The Bewicks are here. Every year, they fly in from Russia, coming just before the cold, racing the worst of the weather. The winds that carry them from the distant north east also tend to bring us the snow. They come by night, navigating by the stars, and the young swans travel with their parents to learn the route. It is not a matter of instinct, but of knowing.

As I write, a hundred or so swans are a matter of yards from me, out grazing in fields near the canal. I hear them calling to each other at dawn and dusk. The whiteness of them against the fading light is ghostly and haunting.

One of the older guys in the village told me that when he was a child, the swans came in their thousands, and flew around the church spire sometimes. He spoke with wonder in his voice, and sorrow for a magic now almost departed. The swans come in hundreds now, not thousands. Years of hunting, years of pollution and the legacy of lead fishing weights has taken a toll. Large and slow flying, they can’t easily change course to dodge things like pylons and wind turbines. Making those more visible from a distance is helping, but there’s so much to do, and the swans do not have all the time in the world.

As a child I used to go to the wildfowl trust to see the swans each winter. I have a lot of good memories of doing that, and it’s lovely being able to take my son to see them as well. He’s captivated by their magic, fascinated by the beak patterning that allows you to identify individuals, and far more intrigued by the facts and figures than I ever was. I wonder if one day I will get to be a grandmother. I wonder if there will be swans still coming then, and whether I will get to share them with a future generation. With climate change taking a toll on so many habitats, there’s no knowing.

I watch the swans grazing in the fields, and I hope that there will be more of them next year, and the year after, and that in a hundred years when I am long gone, the swans will still be here.