Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus) coping with snow at Welney

Close proximity 1: wings up for a Whooper pair Close proximity 2: a moment later, wings down in perfect unison A typical display by a family is almost balletic in its beauty (as well as noisy)
Very icy conditions can force the migrants out into the fields Bewick's Swans (Cygnus columbianus) travel as family units from Russia The unique yellow marking of a Bewick's face is clearly visible

There are two types of migratory Swans, both smaller than the Mute Swan and both arriving in strength in November and staying until March.

Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus) are only slightly smaller, with a wingspan in excess of two metres, and they breed in Iceland, Fenno-Scandia and Russia.

Getting on for 8,000 arrive every autumn from Iceland as family groups to winter here, with around a third of them in the Ouse Washes and at Welney in East Anglia, a wonderful reserve run by the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, which has a record second to none in protecting and raising the profile of water birds. Arguments between Whooper families are common and noisy, with much wing flapping.

Conditions can be pretty bad at Welney in the winter, with biting winds, snow and ice but the birds are used to a similar sort of set-up in Iceland in the summer. They return 'home' to breed in March.

Bewick's Swans (Cygnus columbianus, wingspan 190cm), which breed in the Russian tundra, are even more numerous in the Ouse and nearby Nene Washes, with 90 per cent of the near-7,000 wintering visitors present there. They also come as family groups.

Bewick's Swans are slightly smaller than Whoopers, have less yellow on the beak, and spend more day time away from the lagoons in the Washes feeding on land, where surplus crops are sometimes left for them nowadays. They fly back at dusk, making this one of the sights of the season from late November to early March. Unfortunately, despite their internationally protected status, Bewick's are prone to being hunted in their breeding territory and en route to their wintering areas. The Bewick's pictured here are captive.

Images © Jeremy Early. All rights reserved.

In 2013 I published My Side of the Fence - the Natural History of a Surrey Garden. Details may be found, and orders placed, via this hyperlink My Side of the Fence. In November 2015 Surrey Wildlife Trust published the atlas Soldierflies, their allies and Conopidae of Surrey, jointly written by David Baldock and me. Details are on this web page: Atlas.