Mute swan moments

A commonly seen bird doesn’t really excite a local birdwatcher. Long time ago, a British birdwatcher visiting India said Red-vented Bulbul was his favourite. I said, ‘yeah they are nice birds’ but without much enthusiasm. When I went to UK, a local birdwatcher asked me which British bird I liked most. I replied instantly ‘Mute Swan’. He said, ‘alright, they are doing ok’. I could figure out that the tone was very similar to that of my response for that ‘boring and common’ bulbul. But he added, ‘but they are lovely, aren’t they?’ Indeed they are.

Mute Swan in Cam River

These birds became my favourite the moment I saw them in 2002 in the Cam River. Last year (September 2012) I had a chance to see these birds again, for a fairly long time. And the series of events that followed made my affection towards this bird even stronger. I spent a long time watching and photographing them in the Cam River. There were three cygnets (young Mute Swans) along with an adult. Mute Swans are a good subject for photography with their long neck and the white plumage reflecting on the ripples in the dark waters while they gracefully swim along the stream. Once in a while, they dipped their heads into the water to feed on the aquatic vegetation. Cygnets are dull greyish in colour. But they were certainly not ugly ducklings as folk lores portray.

Mute Swan with cygnets

I was in the UK to get trained in bird ringing. During my stay I had a chance to visit the British Birdfair. There the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) had a stall in which the volunteers explained to the visitors about bird ringing and demonstrated the technique with live, wild birds. To understand the importance of bird ringing by the public, they kept a box full of wrist bands on which a bird name and a ring number were printed.

I have been ringed as a Mute Swan..:)

These were replicas of real rings put on birds during the demonstration. One could pick and wear a band of their choice. It meant that you had been ringed like that bird. Then you go with that band to the other BTO stall to find out some interesting facts about that particular ringed bird. Obviously, I choose a Mute Swan band and the ring number was W03598. I went to the BTO stall and showed my band. To my dismay I found that that bird was dead. I learnt that the bird had been hit by a golf ball when it was flying over the golf course! See the photograph below for more interesting facts.

Fact sheet of W03598

My tryst with Mute Swan continued during my walk in a beautiful English countryside in East Sussex. I went crazy when I saw a Mute Swan swimming in the stream. A footpath ran parallel to the stream. I walked along keeping up my pace with the two Mute Swans swimming along the stream. That entire landscape wouldn’t have looked beautiful if these birds had not been there.

Mute Swan in English countryside

Something strange happened when I was following those birds. One of them raised its leg above the water and kept it in that position for a while. They do that once in a while to rest their legs. When I looked through the viewfinder of my camera I was surprised to see that it had been ringed! I quickly took some close-up shots and figured out the ring number—ZY2162. Soon after I got that photo it sank that leg back into the water. It was as if that bird raised its leg just to show me the ring number. Later when I informed this to the local ringing group I got to know that this bird had been ringed on 20th August 2011.

Showing off the ring!

Another interesting thing which I noticed on that individual was that it was moulting and had lost its primary feathers. During this period individuals like these mostly stay in the water as they can’t fly too well and are vulnerable to predation by foxes.

Moulting individual without primary feathers

Two days after that memorable sighting (6th November 2012), I was in the ringing hut busy ringing some passerines. Suddenly the ringers outside started cheering aloud and I instantly knew that they had captured an interesting bird. I came out and was awestruck to see a Mute Swan. We always want to touch the things which we really like. I fulfilled my wish by caressing the Mute Swan. When these kind of special birds are brought to the ringing hut, normally, they draw a lot from among the names of the participants present there written on pieces of paper. And guess whose lucky day that was? Yes, when they read out my name and said I got a chance to ring the bird I was over the moon.

Ringing a Mute Swan was a special moment. But it is not very easy to do that. Two people had to hold the bird while I put the ring. Since I had never ringed a Mute Swan before, other ringers around me helped enormously. Although my name is recorded in the register, I wouldn’t really boast that it was ringed by me alone. It was a collective effort. However, I was quite happy and thrilled that I got a chance to touch this beautiful bird once again. The ring number that I put on it was ZY2122. In case any of you see a Mute Swan with this ring number, do remember me!

Swan upping in East Sussex!

Mute swan was introduced in the US and now they are considered a pest. I personally don’t want to hate the Mute Swan even where it is non-native. But that is not possible in a biologist’s world. A biologist has to enjoy nature with discretion. This is a curse. We have so many specifications.

If someone in India says they like Lantana flowers, I would have given them a big lecture: “They are invasive plants, they are very bad, they don’t allow other plants to grow, they spread like hell, this is one of the serious problems now we are facing in Indian forests, this plant should be controlled, so on and so forth.” I hate to see Lantana in India, Eucalyptus in India. Likewise somewhere in some part of this earth somebody surely hates the Mute Swan for being non-native. Just the feeling that someone can hate these birds, makes me feel sad. Human beings did a mistake of introducing them in the places which are alien to them. And when they adapt themselves and flourish we call them invasive. Because of our mistake, those beautiful birds are losing their lives. Isn’t that awful?

Swan and Shadow (Poem by John Hollander)

But when I was watching those beautiful Mute Swans beautifully swimming in that beautiful golden sun-lit stream, I thought to myself, I am watching the Mute Swans in their native land. Nobody around me to tell that, ’they are….

Lucky me!