It's official. Winter is here! At least, it is as far as I'm concerned, because on Friday I saw my first wild swan of the winter. By wild swans, we mean the two long-distant migrant species, whooper and Bewick's, rather than the resident mute swans. The latter are thought to largely descend from captive stock, and those on the Thames are still, officially, claimed by The Queen.
Our wild swans, in contrast, come to the UK every winter to escape the frozen conditions in their high Arctic breeding grounds. Both species look superficially similar, but generally come from different parts of the Arctic.
Whooper swans breed in Iceland, with most of the population spending the winter in the UK and Ireland, in places such as western Scotland, Lancashire and The Fens. They arrive from late September and remain in mid April. A few also visit the UK each winter from Scandinavia and western Russia. This is a large swan, similar in size to a mute. The bill is extensively yellow, with a black tip. The yellow extends about two thirds of the length of the bill and always ends in in a point - it looks like a wedge of cheese (w=whooper, w=wedge). The birds often have orange staining on their white heads from feeding in peaty water.
Bewick's swans are noticeably smaller - though size alone can be difficult to judge if not seen alongside a similarly sized bird. The yellow on their bill is much less extensive, never reaching more than halfway down the length of the bill. The yellow is never as wedge-shaped as on a whooper, and looks more like a blob of butter (b=Bewick's, b=butter). Bewick's usually arrive later and leave early as they have much further to migrate, so it's rare to see them much before the last of October. The nearest breeding sites are about 3500 miles NE on the Tamyr Peninsula in Arctic Russia.
The first four Bewick's swans of the winter arrived on South Scrape on Friday morning. One was ringed, bearing a white ring with the letters BTP. Once we find out the history of this bird we'll let you know. These four birds were joined by five more yesterday, with six seen on East Scrape. They may stay here for most of the winter, or may continue their journey west to the Fens or Severn Estuary.
While winter may be here, or at least just around the corner, there was still a slight hint of summer about today's sightings as I spotted a chiffchaff in North Bushes (albeit this is probably a winter visitor), and Paul has just found four hirundines over the visitor centre - a mixed group of swallows and house martins. While late, November records are far from unusual these days.
The chiffchaff was nice bonus as I had failed to find any of the three firecrests that one of our volunteers found in the North Buhses this morning. I did, however, see two bullfinches and at least ten goldcrests as well as some lovely mixed flocks of tits and finches. A treecreeper was seen at the visitor centre, too.
Firecrest by Dene Carter
Of course, the Bewick's swans were not the only birds seen on the Scrape, where numbers of ducks continue to increase and a late flock of 16 avocets is lingering. Great black-backed gulls are prominent, but the keen gull spotters among of our visitors and volunteers have also found a first winter Caspian gull today and three yellow-legged gulls over the weekend. There are also several snipe hiding around the Scrape.
Island Mere has again been popular today with sightings of great white egret, otter, marsh harriers, little and great crested grebes and coots, plus a mystery duck that we think is some of hybrid, but will try to see better tomorrow.
One of the best birds of the day was a male hen harrier that Paul watched drifting high over the reedbed this morning. Other sightings around the reserve included sparrowhawk, kestrel, gannets, several common darter dragonflies, a red admiral butterfly and a stoat (photo by Matt Parrott).
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