Caught by the River

Bewick’s Swans

Mat Bingham | 18th February 2018

Wildlife photographer Mat Bingham captures Bewick’s swans over-wintering in The Ouse Washes

I lie awake in bed. My mind won’t switch off, replaying scenes from today over and over. A family group of Bewick’s swans trumpeting a four-note receding call to each other. They always communicate like this before taking flight. A discussion between the adult birds (the male is called a cob and the female a pen) and their cygnets. Maybe they are describing the flight path they are about to take, or what to do if they become separated from each other. The trumpeting is usually accompanied by head bobbing, recognition from the cygnets that they understand what their parents are telling them. I know I am anthropomorphising but I can’t help it.

In winter, gales blow in from the North Sea, dragging cold air across the fens. The flat topography does little to slow the persistent wind or warm it up. It sharpens the senses, steals the breath and makes the eyes water, but the swans don’t appear to be affected by the biting, gnawing cold that seeps into my bones.

Once the trumpeting and head bobbing is complete, the Bewick’s turn into the wind and launch themselves forward, flapping their wings and peddling their webbed feet as if on some invisible bicycle. Eventually all the flapping and peddling pays off, and they break free from the water’s surface.

In the air they are a graceful bird, flying in a wedge shape formation. The lead bird is always one of the adults, the pathfinder. They head off in search of food, but they will return at dusk.

The sky is intimidating, a compressed panorama of heavy cloud and weak sunshine drained of colour, the familiar fenland grey of winter. Two Bewick’s fly east, and the flashing black and white catches my eye. They diffuse light, highlighting the white of their wing feathers on the downstroke and casting shadows on the upstroke. The Bewick’s turn and lose altitude, using their wings to slow and stall, dropping towards one of the many flooded fields of the Ouse Washes. In the fens, each flooded field – called a wash – eventually drains into ‘The Wash’ via the river Great Ouse. The Ouse Washes are about twenty miles long and half a mile wide, sandwiched between the river and a manmade earth embankment. They are part of Sir Peter Scott’s vision to increase the amount of wetland habitat in the UK and encourage wildfowl to over-winter here.

Dry land in the washes is at a premium in the winter. A flock of black tailed godwits crowd onto a small island. They are easily spooked; a marsh harrier flushes the flock into the air. They fly in unison, an airborne bait ball, a defence mechanism designed to confuse the hunter. Unable to single out any birds lagging behind the masses, the marsh harrier gives up the chase. The flock take several minutes to settle again. I can hear their wing beats, which make a pulsing drone, fading in and out as they fly closer and then recede. Eventually order is restored and they land, taking up residence once more on the island.

Bewick’s swans have another name in Siberia, where they are called Tundra swans. They disperse across the vast expanse of wilderness in the spring, when the adult pairs mate, nest and rear their young. Bewick’s usually mate for life and can live for up to 30 years. In the autumn the urge to migrate becomes overwhelming – a feeling that they must leave before the snows come. They fly west and south from Siberia, staying close to the coast through Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Germany before finally reaching the UK. Most of the Bewick’s that over-winter in our country do so in the fens of East Anglia. During the short winter days they feed in the fields on the scraps left over from the harvest and at dusk they seek out the washes, the flooded refuge providing some protection from predators.

I spot a lone Bewick’s in the late afternoon flying low over the flood water. He looks like a young bird; this was probably the first time he had made the long journey east on his own. His parents have shown him the way only once and somehow he remembers where to go. I hope he can find a mate in time for the journey back to Siberia in the spring. As I think about this, I at fall asleep at last.