Bewick’s Irish swan song nears?

THOMAS BEWICK, the celebrated engraver, carved in hard woods.

The results were outstanding and hard woods have been used by artists ever since.

Bewick was also a naturalist. His General History of Quadrupeds appeared in 1790.

It was followed, a decade later, by The History of British Birds, a landmark in wildlife publishing. After his death in 1828, two bird species were named in his honour. Bewick’s wren is found throughout the southern United States. It doesn’t migrate. The Bewick swan, on the other hand, travels from Siberia to Ireland each winter. In recent decades, however, numbers here have fallen steadily. If this continues, it may soon be as alien as its American wren namesake.

In Bewick’s day, only two swan species were recognised in Europe. The familiar ‘mute’ swan breeds on the shores of lakes and rivers.

It is mainly sedentary, although some Eastern European and Scandinavian ones travel south each autumn. This trusting bird can become tame and nests even in cities. The big migrant swan, known as the whooper, arrives from Iceland each autumn and departs again in the spring. A shy, aloof creature, it gives us a wide berth. As a result, few people recognise the distinctive right-angle profile and characteristic face pattern. Whoopers lack the bright orange bill and bulbous black ‘berry’ of their mute cousins. Instead, they have two-tone black-on-yellow bills.

Early in the 19th century, it was noticed the migrant swans come in two sizes.

The larger males weigh up to 10kg. The smaller ones reach 7kg.

The bill patterns, too, are different.

The ‘noses’ of the big birds have more yellow than black, while, on the smaller ones, black predominates. In 1830, the two were deemed to be separate species, the smaller one being named after Bewick. The ‘whistling’ swan of North America is similar to the Bewick except its bill is almost all black. The two are now considered to be races of a single species to be known henceforth as the ‘tundra’ swan.

In 1850, William Thomson noted more Bewicks than whoopers came to Ireland.

Richard Ussher and Robert Warren, writing in 1900, were more ambivalent; the Bewick, they claimed, was ‘an exceedingly fluctuating, and in most places uncertain, visitor’. However, they also said that ‘according to Mr E Williams’, whoopers ‘occur in about the proportion of one to 25 Bewick swans’. Thirty six years later, George Humphreys wrote that the Bewick was still ‘much more numerous than the whooper’. By 1954, however, things had changed; PG Kennedy, RF Ruttledge and CF Scroope, declared the whooper was now more numerous than its Siberian cousin.

According to Helen Boland of BirdWatch Ireland, there were 2,700 Bewicks here in the winter of 1956/7.

By the mid 80s, there were less than half that number. The swan census of 2005 found 224. During the next census, five years later, we had only 80.

According to Helen, the reasons for the steady decline are not fully understood.

Climate change, she notes, has resulted in milder conditions in Western Europe and Bewicks need not travel so far to find feeding areas in winter. This ‘short-stopping’ means that few birds venture as far as Ireland.

Whoopers, on the other hand, can’t ‘short-stop’; they must either remain in Iceland or cross the ocean to Ireland or Britain. Whoopers are doing well; 2,480 of them were counted at Martin Mere in Lancashire, last month, a new record. Some, however, are opting to winter in Iceland. The climate there has been milder recently.

During the Little Ice Age, from the 16th to the 19th centuries, winters were much more severe.

Short-stopping was not an option then and the Bewick must have been the commoner visitor.

Bird migration was unknown to people long ago. The arrival of swans in the autumn and their disappearance in spring deemed magical.

You might think that the mythical Lir’s children were transformed into whoopers as it’s the larger, more glamorous, bird.

However, Fionnuala, Aodh, Fiachra and Conn were probably Bewicks.


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