Swans savour chance to play around

ABOUT a week ago I was travelling by boat on the Shannon.

It was a glorious spring day with sunshine and just the odd shower. The river was looking great.

Much of the Shannon is lined by reed beds, some of them very extensive and often with more than one reed species in them. The different species have different preferences for water depth and the make-up of the river bottom — some like mud, others gravel. They are also subtly different in colour, giving a ‘forty shades of green’ effect.

But that’s in summer. Although spring has arrived, the reed beds are still wearing their winter colours, a restful mix of yellow-browns. But I could tell new growth was pushing its way towards the surface because the reed beds were full of swans dipping their heads into the water and grazing busily on the succulent young shoots.

Mute swans normally form pairs and mate for the first time when they are four or five years old. Typically the male, or cob, is a year or two older than the female, or pen. There was a marked difference in behaviour between the more mature mated pairs and the flocks of un-mated adolescents.

The flocks of younger birds congregated in the broader stretches and there seemed to be quite a lot of horse-play going on, if that’s the right expression. They were chasing each other around and noisily and laboriously taking to the air, only to land on the water again moments later.

It looked to me as though they were reacting to the arrival of spring by boisterously establishing the relationships that would eventually end in ‘marriage’ and the business of trying to set up territories of their own.

The older swans were all in pairs. The slightly larger cobs tried to make themselves even larger by fluffing up their plumage if another swan came into view. Some of them did the same to my large blue and white boat, which they seemed to think might also be a threat to their hard-won territory. When they weren’t feeding the pairs sat close together on the bank preening and, presumably, contemplating the labour of nest building.

Something similar was obviously going on in the duck world. Several times the sound of the boat disturbed mallard from the reed beds and they shot up, always a male and a female together, like pairs of jet fighters. There’s a huge difference between the mallard’s mastery of flight and the laboured efforts of swans. But then the mute swan is one of the heaviest flying birds in the world.

There were herons, too. They’re another enormous bird — in fact, after the mute swan they are Ireland’s largest common bird. They also appear a bit awkward when they’re flying. They put an ‘S-bend’ in their necks but leave their long legs trailing behind. The wings are curved downwards and flap slowly.

But this apparent awkwardness is deceptive. They are extremely good at aerial manoeuvres. They are often mobbed by members of the crow family or by smaller birds and are well able to cope. In medieval times when falconry was a popular sport one of the most highly prized spectacles was flying a peregrine at a heron and then watching the protracted aerial manoeuvres that followed. As often as not the apparently languid heron would escape the falcon.

The other thing that lit up the river banks were the goat willows. This is the pussy willow and the catkins were at their finest. Male trees bear the butter-yellow ones. On female trees the catkins are green at first, maturing to a silvery grey.

* dick.warner@examiner.ie


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