Wonderful Whoopers of Welney

The wind tears through the reeds and tall grasses along the margin of the pool. Their heads, heavy with seeds, buffeted one way and then the other as blasts of frigid air sweep through the chilly fen. Inside the hide the wind is a muted roar, the large windows and heaters providing a most comfortable viewing platform. The murky brown water of the lagoon rises and falls in small, but ferocious, waves. Around its edge and on the spits of land within the pool, many ducks, geese and swans are sleeping, their heads tucked against their bodies as they huddle down, trying to get away from the wind. The odd feather is ruffled by the wind and there is an occasional wobble as a particularly strong gust hits. Beyond the lagoon is a landscape of short grass, mowed by man and now maintained at a short sward by hundreds of Wigeon. Out on the muddy water not all the birds are sleeping; ducks like Pochard, Shoverlar, Pintail, Teal and Mallard, are bobbing up and down on the restless water, feeding either by scooping their bills across the water’s surface, sticking their bottoms in the air or diving down, leaving bubble prints on the water’s surface. Occasionally whole flocks of ducks are spooked, either from the pools edge or further afield, rising up as one and becoming a swirling black mass of bodies, twisting and turning against the sky, before settling once more on the field or water.

A flock of Wigeon

Among the ducks and geese are beautiful and graceful white swans. Half a dozen or so are our familiar (but no less beautiful), resident, Mute Swans with their dark orange bill and black lores that meet the eye, giving the impression they are wearing a mask. But more numerous are swans with dazzling yellow beaks and lores. Swans, who while our Mute Swans have spent the summer raising fluffy little grey cygnets on our local water bodies, have been breeding on the tundra of Iceland. Now, having flown over 1200 miles, including crossing 700 miles of Atlantic Ocean in one go, these graceful birds have arrived at the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust’s site at Welney (among other places). They are magnificent Whooper Swan’s.

The stunning Whooper Swan

While there are a few Whooper’s on the lagoon in front of the hide, for most of the day they are more likely to be found out on the surrounding fields, large masses of white splodges on the dark brown soil, feeding on the tops of sugar beet. A recent count saw just over 2400 Whooper Swans at Welney, by its peak this number will more than double.

The short days now upon us means that although it is only just past lunch, the sun is already heading for the horizon sending that warm golden light that photographers love across the fen. While the sun dances a game of hide and seek behind bands of cloud rolling across the once clear sky, the ducks, geese and swans on the pool start to become more active. More birds awaken and start milling in front of the hide, lining up on the bank with an air of anticipation. A guide comes into the hide and runs through an informative talk about the reserve and its special winter visitors. Following a round of warm applause he heads out onto the bank of the pool, braving the icy blasts of wind and begins to throw out grain for the birds. Almost immediately the serene, if wind swept, pool becomes a frenzy of activity. Those birds that had spent the afternoon snoozing are now wide awake and scrambling around for the food, quarrelling with others that get too close or who go for the same bit of sinking grain. Family groups of Whooper’s join the fray, the young of the year with ashy grey heads and necks making them look like they have just tumbled down a chimney rather than flown across part of the Atlantic.

Feeding in the sunset

As the sun sinks closer to the horizon it lights up the clouds and sky in a blaze of fiery orange that turns to pink in an incandescent display of natural beauty. Against this blaze of colour more Whooper Swans make their way onto the pool, gliding in low, opening their large, beautiful wings, thrusting their feet forward and hydroplaning into land on the water’s surface, their ripples merging with the waves created by the wind. The sound of honking and bugling fills the dusk air. It is not only the sky that is transformed by the brilliant sunset, the murky brown water of the lagoon changes to oily black with orange, red and yellow highlights making it look like molten larva.  Finally the sun disappears and the blazing colour drains from the sky to be replaced by deep blue that is shading to velvety black. From the warm hide flood lights come on, so as the landscape outside disappears into inky black the illuminated lagoon provides one last feed before its lights out and time for bed…

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