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Wednesday 27 August 2014

Honk of wild swans trumpets their arrival

Published 03/12/2013 | 05:38

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Hard weather drives wild swans south to seek milder climes.

When winter stalked out of the north gripping northern latitudes in its chilly embrace hard weather drove wild swans south to seek milder climes to overwinter in.

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These birds arrived in Ireland from the tundra of the far north a few weeks ago and one of the lovely things about their presence is the sound of their loud and sonorous bugling, honking, whooping and trumpeting calls in our wetlands and adjoining pastures.

We have three species of swan in Ireland: the Mute Swan, Bewick's Swan and the Whooper Swan. As its name tells us the Mute Swan does not go in for whooping and trumpeting and while it is by no means mute most of its distinctive calls are indeed rather weak and muted.

The Mute Swan is a year-round resident here and has an orange-red bill with a prominent black knob on its forehead. The other two swan species - Bewick's Swan and the Whooper Swan - are winter visitors, have yellow and black bills and no black knobs on their foreheads.

Bewick's Swan is named in honour of Thomas Bewick the celebrated Northumbrian wood engraver, artist, naturalist and author of A History of British Birds. He died in 1828 and is an ancestor of the well-known, Kerry-based artist Pauline Bewick.

In the past, significant numbers of Bewick's Swans used to come to Ireland from their breeding grounds in Artic Siberia. Nowadays they are rare visitors making the Whooper Swan our most common wild swan overwintering here.

The Whooper Swan is the biggest and loudest of the trio. It is has a long, straight profile, more yellow than black on its bill and the yellow extends towards the tip of the bill in a wedge that projects to a point below each nostril as shown in the image above.

In contrast, Bewick's swan is the smallest of the trio, has a more goose-like profile, has more black than yellow on its bill, the yellow ends abruptly and never projects forward in a wedge to a point below the nostril.

While the wing beats of Whooper Swans only make a slight hissing sound unlike the very obvious loud singing or throbbing sound made by the wing beats of Mute Swans, the Whoopers call as they fly, their loud and sonorous bugling, honking, whooping and trumpeting a pleasure to hear as they move to and from their daytime feeding grounds and their wetland night roosts.

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