Drain the swamp…

Magpies are unmistakable and noisy, with a repertoire of abrupt, harsh calls. Sharp-eyed and intelligent, they are an efficient predator of the nest contents of smaller birds; and, as a consequence, they are disliked by many people. In the suburbs of towns and cities from Ankara to Bristol and across every type of farmland they build their familiar nest high in the trees, a ball of stout sticks with a single narrow entrance and a mud-lined base; their adaptability and consequent ubiquity places them within an unfashionable elite of successful, generalist species. Drain the swamp and la gazza ladra prospers.

One magpie sits deep in the bushes just off the path and then begins a quiet, tuneless mix of scratches and short, sweet calls in a rich sub song. The bird appears self-absorbed. Few other birds are calling in the cold afternoon of bright sun, just hanging in there; a robin sallies from perches along the path; a pair of dunnocks work the brambles and other bushes.

On the sheltered mere, there are no waterfowl except three Bewick’s swans; an adult pair, snow white against the deep blue water and their single, dull grey young. These have flown together from arctic Russia to winter in these temperate lands. This elegant species is distributed right around the northern hemisphere; its other more informative name is tundra swan Cygnus columbianus. The species was first described for science from the Columbia river in the Pacific Northwest (the so-called type locality), hence columbianus.

Tundra swans possess a beautiful honking call designed to carry on the wind, so young may stay in contact with their parents throughout their long migration. Drain the swamp and this migrant will be a distant echo.

Local mute swans travel in herds to feed in large, flat fields of winter crops and then return to the safety of the mere in the late afternoon. Most members of the herd are adults and young that probably don’t yet hold breeding territories. An adult female (called a pen, the male is a cob) feeds quietly in a drainage ditch adjacent to the path, unconcerned by the occasional walker; she is most likely to be one of a territorial pair and appears safe in her own back yard.

 

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