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Darryl Grimason: The whooper swan declares the arrival of winter

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 11:54 UK time, Thursday, 25 November 2010

Guest blogger: Darryl Grimason, this week's guest presenter of Autumnwatch, has been with the team in Northern Ireland all week filming whooper swans.

No other migrant declares the passing of autumn and the arrival of winter quite like whooper swans. Their loud whooping calls are music to the ears long after the summer songs of warblers and twittering swallows have faded into memory.

Darryl Grimason been filmed for Autumnwatch

Me being filmed by the Autumnwatch team

Their voices embody the sound of wilderness - the snow white plumage and yellow and black bills are the 24-carat hallmark of wild beauty.

Most of the Icelandic breeding population of these big birds return to our shores ahead of a bitter winter in the land of fire and ice. Over 20,000 of them, travelling in family groups, come to the British Isles every winter. About 60 per cent of them come to Ireland and around 1,500 settle into the wetlands around Lough Neagh.

I spotted my first whoopers at Oxford Island Nature Reserve, close to my home near Lurgan, in County Armagh, in mid October. The seven adults and cygnets had rusty necks and heads, the telltale stains of iron oxide from the muddy waters of a marsh somewhere in Iceland.

I love to see that, because it's a clue that they have only just completed an arduous 800-mile trip across the Atlantic. The ruddy hue wears and washes off after a couple of weeks being back with us.

A friend texted to say that she'd heard noisy whoopers flying over her house near the River Foyle in the far north-west of Northern Ireland, all day on October 30. They'd chosen Halloween to move on from Lough Foyle, and sure enough, when I went to see 'my birds' on the shores of Lough Neagh the next day, there were 27 of them in the Closet Meadows, heads down and grazing hard, among lapwing and golden plover.

Unlike our resident mute swans, whoopers are wild and wary of people, so the best views are nearly always at a distance, through binoculars or a spotting scope. But for the past few days I've been enjoying seriously up close and personal encounters with these big and boisterous visitors.

From dawn to dusk, the Autumnwatch team has been capturing breathtaking images of whoopers roosting and feeding at Lough Beg, an internationally important area for wintering wild fowl.

It's been amazing, we've even had them flying directly over our heads as they commute to and from the same flooded fields they come to every year.

It's been a memorable experience - made all the more enjoyable because I shared it with RSPB swan expert Seamus Burns. His insight into the secrets of swan society, his interpretation of their behaviour, his work to protect their winter haunts far into the future are all an education and an inspiration.

Waiting alongside Seamus for the whoopers to return to the lough to roost - surrounded by flickering flocks of lapwing, wigeon whistling in the rushes and hunched against the cold - I was struck by how lucky I was to be standing there.

Then, just after 5pm, as an opal moon rose in the east and the sun sank into the pink, peach and amber west the whooping started. White birds were silhouetted back against the pale horizon. Their raucous calls built to a crescendo in the darkness. The black sky was punctuated by swans and stars. What a spectacular way to celebrate the start of winter!

To watch Darryl's films about whooper swans, join Autumnwatch at 8.30pm on Thursday 25 November, BBC Two.


  • Comment number 1.

    Hi, we also get whooper swans up here ,they can be seen @ Nigg Bay rspb hide,last year a small flock flew over head, and made us jump, at the same time the V jumped in mid air, WHAT a site that was,

  • Comment number 2.

    Beautifully written, poetic descriptions, thanks for a great blog.

  • Comment number 3.

    Just watched the piece on Whooper swans on the i player and having been
    to Martin Mere [my local patch] on Monday of this week I have to say
    that they are a fantastic site [800 plus at Martin Mere].
    I have done some research on the internet since and find that not all
    Whooper,s will head back to Iceland etc.to breed next summer and that
    apart from the Irish birds there are also a small number [about 6or7
    pairs] that stay and breed in Shetland each year.
    How about a little mission for Gordon next Springwatch to try and film
    a British Whooper family coming into the world.
    Meanwhile , keep up the good work and thank you for a great Autumnwatch.

  • Comment number 4.

    I,ve just checked WWT Martin Mere web site and Whooper swan figures are
    actually over 1300 this year and no doubt this cold snap will see more
    moving down to sunny Lancashire.
    Might be well worth another visit next week.

  • Comment number 5.

    I though Darryl Grimason's piece about Lough Beg and whooper swans was superb. It has really inspired me to get out and enjoy the beauty of our countryside more. He took a holistic approach and while he obviously knew and communicated the scientific information he also fed the soul with his beautiful description of the "evocative" sound of the birds returning as night fell. A joy. I just wanted to be there! Magic! Please can we have more of Darryl on Springwatch?


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