Winter’s winged pilgrims: on the migration of swans

It’s impossible to regard the natural world without seeing something of our own caught up in it.

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Home from home: every winter swans migrate hundreds, even thousands of miles, from north to south. Photo: Jeremy Wodehouse/Blend Images/Gallerystock

Home from home: every winter swans migrate hundreds, even thousands of miles, from north to south. Photo: Jeremy Wodehouse/Blend Images/Gallerystock

On this Fenland day of frost and low sun I’ve driven 30 miles across fields of wheat, wet ditches and willows to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) reserve at Welney in Norfolk. I’m on my annual winter pilgrimage to one of Britain’s finest wildlife spectacles. At three o’clock I’m inside the main observatory, a heated and carpeted structure far from the usual ramshackle hide.

Just as unusual are the crowds around me. There are a few wolfish-looking men with spectacular telescopes. But there are also impressively bouffanted ladies of a certain age looking through binoculars so old-fashioned they resemble opera glasses. There’s a woman in a wheelchair who sang joyously all the way down the bumpy slope to the door. There are teen Goths and toddlers and elderly couples and a tiny baby in pink tights and top. All of us stare out of the panoramic windows at a mile of water broken by tiny islands and dotted lines that are the stalks of drowned grasses and huddles of sleeping black-tailed godwits. The mercury-bright lake is patterned with thousands of birds as far as the eye can see: moving dots that are mallard, wigeon and pochard and miniature icebergs that are swans.

The Ouse Washes are a highly engineered landscape: a lake the size of Loch Lomond appears here every winter and drains to wet pasture in spring. Famed for wildfowling and winter skating, it has become a wintering site for thousands of swans that come here to feast on potatoes left in the ground after harvest, on sugar beet, on winter wheat. These aren’t the familiar mute swans of local parks and ponds. They migrate here from the Arctic: whooper swans from Iceland and Bewick’s swans from Siberia.

To get here whoopers cross the north Atlantic non-stop, flying for 12 hours at roughly 20,000 feet. It’s an astonishing feat of endurance. But it is the smaller species, Bewick’s swans, that are the favourite of the WWT stockman Shaun. “The yellow from their beaks continues up and around their eyes,” he says, reverently. “Like yellow eyeliner. They’re such pretty little birds.”

There’s a bronze bust of the WWT’s founder, Sir Peter Scott, in the corner of the room. He loved them, too. Fifty years ago, he noticed that every swan had a different pattern of yellow and black on its bill. Fascinated, he started naming them and painting tiny swan mugshots of each bird. This developed into a “face book”, a visual catalogue of individual swans that is continued today. Even now, WWT researchers memorise birds by sight and Scott’s initial tracing of swans and their family trees has become one of the longest-running wildlife studies in the world. In conjunction with ringing studies and radio tracking, the data it produces is crucial for conservation. While whooper populations are healthy, those of Bewick’s swans are not: climate and habitat changes seem likely factors in their rapid decline.

When I was small, Bewick’s swans had a particular kind of glamour because they migrated here from the Soviet Union, crossing the Iron Curtain with total unconcern. I’ve often wondered what lay behind Scott’s fascination with them. To an ex-naval officer, explorer’s son and champion glider pilot, the heroic North Sea flights of whoopers would certainly appeal. But it is tempting to imagine that a particular strand of English conservatism influenced his desire to individuate Bewick’s swans, turn them into families rather than flocks, trace their family trees and give them names such as Casino, Croupier, Lancelot, Jane Eyre and Victoria, before they returned to the Soviet Union each spring. It’s possible. Politics is so easily caught up in science, the cold war unwittingly pleated into swans’ rushing, beating wings.

There’s a moment of hushed anticipation as Shaun leaves the observatory to push a wheelbarrow along the shoreline and cast great scoopfuls of corn into the water. We crowd at the windows. A vast raft of winter wildfowl are feeding busily beneath us: conker-headed pochards, mallards, scores of whoopers and Bewick’s swans with cloudy pinions and snowy necks. These birds are fantastically wild, yet here they are, tame as farmyard ducks, feeding in the near-dark under floodlights. The experience is joyous but messes with your everyday notions of what a wild animal is, what wildness is at all.

Something is missing. I leave the observatory and head for the hides next door, raise a narrow window to let in the soundscape outside. What do thousands of Arctic swans sound like? Rather like a vast amateur brass band tuning up in an aircraft hangar. My heart soars. Every few seconds comes a carillon of new voices. The swans are coming home to roost in little family groups, silhouettes that rise over the observatory and plane down to the black water. They are calling to each other in the dark, these beautiful migrants, some of their faces stained yellow, some dark with potato mud, their broad, webbed feet splayed to brake as they descend. They land, call, flap their wings, squabble, dip their heads under the water, preen, drink thirstily.

This is my winter pilgrimage; this is why I came. It’s impossible to regard the natural world without seeing something of our own caught up in it. And what delights me, watching these swans, is how clearly they are as at home here as they are in the Arctic. Their presence here challenges commonplace notions of nativism. Forget Christmas. The swans’ visitations are to me the happiest of winter celebrations. 

Helen Macdonald’s “H Is for Hawk” is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99)

This article appears in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014