Wildlife & Nature to See in February : Swans

Our resident swans are joined by lots of visitors over winter.

Wildlife to See in February : Swans

Mute Swan. Image by Laurie Campbell

Mute Swan. Image by Laurie Campbell

To most people in Britain, the mute swan (Cygnus olor) is the first species to spring to mind. This is our native, year-round inhabitant, with its distinctive black-knobbed orange bill (and occasionally grumpy attitude!) The mute swan is Britain’s heaviest flying bird, weighing up to 12kg, so it has to eat a lot of aquatic vegetation to maintain this. Swans are often regarded as symbols of romance, as they pair for life, and are royally protected.

However, there are two other species of swan that over-winter in our country: the Bewick’s swan, from Arctic Russia, and the Whooper swan, from Iceland.

The Bewick’s swan, (Cygnus columbianus) is Britain’s smallest swan, and arrives mid-October after breeding in Siberia. It can be told apart from the other species due to its smaller size, appearing more goose-like in comparison, and also for having more black than the Whooper, on its yellow bill.

The Whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus) is also yellow-billed, and due to its decreasing numbers is an Amber Listed species. Like the Bewick’s swan, the Whooper also inhabits Britain between March and October, and enjoys agricultural land (it even eats potatoes!).

Welney, an Ouse washes reserve owned by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) is situated north of Ely, in Cambridgeshire, and is the winter home of the three varieties of swan. Their most recent reserve count (counts take place every fortnight), shows 1737 Bewick’s swans, and 1439 Whoopers, not to mention numerous Widgeons, Teals, Gadwalls, Mallards, Shovelers, Pintails and Tufted ducks. What with wildlife decreasing across the country, as people push for more space, it really is awe-inspiring to still be able to see such huge numbers of birds congregating each year.

Whooper Swan. Image by Laurie Campbell.

Whooper Swan. Image by Laurie Campbell.

The reserve has exciting sightings of birds of prey, such as Sparrowhawks and Kestrels, on a regular basis, as well as housing smaller native birds, like Lapwings, Reed Buntings and Bearded Tits. There really is a huge amount to see, so leave a whole day free, dig out your binoculars, and enjoy the heated hides.

Over the winter reserve staff feed the birds, which is worth watching. Feedings take place at noon between December and March, and are accompanied by a short talk about the swans. If you have a day off on Monday 2nd February, the reserve is celebrating World Wetlands Day, with a series of activities for children, games to play and a special trail.

The PR team at Welney state that: “WWT Welney Wetland Centre is a flagship in sustainable living. Experience tranquillity and wildlife on our spring and summer walks or marvel at the amazing spectacle of 9,000 wild migratory swans every autumn and winter at our daily commentated feeds.” And in my opinion it is well worth a winter visit.

Article by Lizzy Dening You can follow Lizzy on Twitter or go to her website