Wetland birds are on our minds this week, with a much-anticipated talk at Cabragh Wetlands by the renowned Birdwatch Ireland naturalist Kevin Collins on Tuesday 24th January at 8.00pm. Entrance is free. Kevin’s topic is “Identifying Wetland Birds”, and promises to be as entertaining and informative as his other much-enjoyed talks at Cabragh.
While not wishing to fall out with our Holycross neighbours, there is some jealously here at Cabragh Wetlands that a substantial flock of Whooper Swans have been lured away from our painfully conserved aquatic habitat to spend a few days enjoying the comforts of flooded fields by the Dublin-Cork railway. Visitors to the John Doyle Centre will be enjoying fine views of these beautiful refugees from the icy north, who seem undisturbed by trains thundering past. Holycross-Ballycahill GAA unwittingly built a fine hide when they put in those wonderful upstairs sloping windows, and I am sure they appreciate the elegant bonus of such a display of over 60 swans.
Whoopers (cygnus cygnus) are a large swan, with a long neck usually held straight upright, though of course curved down when feeding or if angry. The bill is black with yellow markings at the base, which differentiates it from the orange-black bill of the smaller Bewick’s Swan. Heavy-bodied, Whoopers walk easily on high-stepping long legs and in flight swish quietly like other large birds, in contast to the vibrant noise of the Mute Swan. When migrating they adopt the familiar V-formation, or skein, with family groups gathering to make flocks of several hundred birds. Normally they fly at low altitude over the sea, but radar scanning records showed one flock of Whoopers flying at an astonishing 26,000 feet, apparently unaffected by low oxygen levels and air temperatures of -50°C.
Most of the birds we see in Ireland will have come from Iceland, with some from the frozen wastes of Siberian Russia. They will make the 800 mile journey in a single flight. Whoopers tend to hang around into the later winter, unlike the Bewick’s, which head north as soon as the worst of the winter cold is over, but there are few recent records of them breeding in the British Isles. Some bred in the Outer Hebrides a few decades ago, and in the Orkneys before they were shot by returning Great War soldiers, but today they prefer to head back to Icelandic nesting sites to raise their cygnets. Tufty grass and mossy vegetation beside a lake is their breeding-ground of choice, with mud to dabble in and the calm of feeder rivers to enjoy. They may use the same nest for several years, producing five or six eggs which the mother incubates alone while the male stand guard nearby. Cygnets can fly after eight or nine weeks, and the cycle of migration can begin again.
Whoopers are a wild bird, unhappy near people, difficult to approach and tending to keep well away from roads and houses. Those in Holycross seem to stay at the farther edges of their temporary lake, paddling and dabbling in the mud near the protection of hedges. Tipperary is really quite privileged to have such a large flock, which rarely appeared in such numbers until 30 years ago. The call of the Whooper (whoop-a) gave it its name, more goose-like and honking than the baying hounds that a flock of Bewick’s resemble. As a larger bird, the sound comes from deep in the chest, and one source suggests that the origin of the term ‘swansong‘ may be linked to the extra length of the Whooper’s trachea. A dying Whooper will give a prolonged “final expiration of air from the convoluted windpipe, producing a wailing flute-like sound given out quite slowly.”