Swans at shore
23rd August 2020
I wandered to the banks of the River Wye just outside the city of Hereford in early August 2020.
Hereford is my hometown and though the streets echo with smiles and shadows of past memories, nature forever offers new delights when I visit from the north. Being 'home' came many months in waiting due to the strict UK lockdown that accompanied the Coronavirus global pandemic.
It was the evening at the point at which I walked to the Wye and had rained much of the day, though rays of sunlight were creeping through the grey clouds. My body craved time in nature and it’s no wonder my feet took me to the ancient trees that were characters in stories of my childhood. Despite my love of these old ones, I found myself moving past them, called by the gentle lapping of the calm waters of the water.
I walked to the river’s edge, down a small muddy slope to a pebble-filled bay. Wild plants grew tall, offering shelter for a travelling soul. Here I came across a man and boy and the spectacle that arose from the boy throwing bread that eager herring gulls drove towards. They dived from all directions above and around me, through the sky and into the water. Ducks clustered within this crowded scene. I felt the urge to sit and watch so took a rough cushion on the stones a little away, not wishing to disturb the tranquility man and boy were experiencing.
As I looked to the right into the distance, I spotted a family of mute swans (Cygnus Olor) approaching. Leading this fluid, silent and elegant train of waterfowl was an adult. Three happy cygnets still dressed in their light grey fluff of feathery down were swimming behind, whilst another adult swam protectively at the back.
I was surprised to see how stridently the adult swan at the front approached, confidently and assuredly wading from water to stone to shore. Standing tall, the swan scooped up crumbly delights with wild abandon before awaiting more morsels to be thrown. A canoe swiftly passed by on the river as the cygnets, not wishing to miss out on the food, began their venture to dry land.
They moved more delicately, tentatively, showing inexperience on newer unsteadier legs. Meanwhile, the other adult still in the water maintained a steadfast gaze from the back, scanning for danger. Such parental displays when around humans is likely a familiar sight given swans natural tendency to form close familial bonds and have monogamous relationships (1).
At one point the adult swan nearest to me stopped. It looked up and stared provokingly at me as the cygnets groomed themselves nearby. A warning: stay where you are.
I had no intention of moving closer and held my ground. Had I been nearer such a dramatic face could well have stirred me to shift a little.
I had a moment of feeling the absence of a telephoto lens here, but more can be gained in this situation than ruminating on not having enough kit with me.
Jason Smalley suggests in lessons exploring ‘mastering creative photography (2) that it’s necessary to share ‘time and space’ by deeply connecting with a 'subject'. By ‘slowing down’ and taking time to be part of the scene. This opens up the possibilities for adding depth and emotion to images through the photographer's greater engagement. I felt this lesson whilst sat at the river's edge and took myself to a more mindful and peaceful place in my mind.
After a few minutes the boy ran out of food and man and boy wandered on, leaving me to enjoy the waterfowl still settled on the shore. The ducks now edged onto land, considering seeking out crumbs, though the curtain upon the swan scene had not yet dropped. Just as the magic of a sunset can come in the twilight palette, the other adult swan brought itself to shore as a beautiful dance resumed.
One gratefully receiving one-woman audience sat quietly entranced as the swans stood face-to-face, poised, still for a few moments. They then began bending their impossibly long necks as one, creating a mirror image, butterfly wings. The bright white statuesque creatures then uncurled their necks to another position before again being still, before moving again, another pose, another movement. Such a display I imagine to be one of the rituals in the dance of their swan partnership, just as other dances form part of swan relationships (3).
When it was over the adults drifted back to the water where their young waited. They swam into the distance as the ducks began in earnest seeking out any bread hiding between the pebbles, unperturbed by my presence.
It is not unusual to see swans on the banks of UK lakes and rivers and humans do enjoy feeding the birds (4). Yet bearing witness to swans at shore is timelessly beautiful, That is, if we only take the time to enjoy the stillness of such a simple and idyllic scene.
Johnsgard, Paul A. (2016) ‘Swans: Their Biology and Natural History’. Zea E-Books. Book 38. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/zeabook/38 (Accessed 18.8.2020)
The Call of the Muse (2020) ‘What’s your why?’ https://www.thecallofthemuse.com/whats-your-message/ (Accessed 22.8.2020)
Bird specialists have found swans social behaviours and practises something of a mystery in terms of the biological reasons for such displays, though the mirroring and posturing is common to see (see Johnsgard reference).
Swan Sanctuary. Frequently Asked Questions https://www.theswansanctuary.org.uk/general-information/#:~:text=Once%20all%20the%20eggs%20have,days%20(6%20weeks)%20later.