A first-hand account of a British summer spent in the company of a stunning and iconic swan family.

Swanning Around on the Wharfe

From a modern cinematic blockbuster to a good old fashioned pantomime, we all love a villain! But sometimes our enthusiasm to identify and brand miscreants can result in miscarriages of justice. This is never truer than when we look at the animal kingdom and our many anthropomorphic projections tailored to the whims and fashions of the day.

Despite their royal heritage and protection, swans get a particularly bad press in modern British folklore. “Swans can break your arm” was one of the first things things I learnt about this iconic bird. Yet human bones are much stronger than a swan’s smaller, weaker skeletal structure, making it impossible for this large white bird to crush anything other than your pride. Still not convinced? How about a look at Abbotsbury Swannery in Dorset. This location was cited on the BBC website a few years ago and more recently in a Countryfile article in January 2019. Both articles tackle the idea of whether a swan can break your arm and both reference the thousand swans at Abbotsbury and the absence of any reported human casualties in the colony’s six hundred year history.

This said, their size and perceived confidence around people can at times feel particularly intimidating. Last summer though I had a swan encounter that would change my feelings and understanding of this unique water bird forever…

Mute Swan on Nest

“What’s your favourite season to photograph?” It’s the most common question I get asked as a photographer and educator. While some frequently asked questions can evoke an emotionless stock answer, this one often elicits a different, sometimes contradictory response.

The truth is, the arrival of each new season is like the delivery of a blank canvas and new paints to a painter. A painter desperate to move onto their next piece of work. That’s why, usually, my favourite season is the one on the horizon. The season that will pull me away from an over-thought, overworked project and confront me with a fresh landscape and a new world of opportunities. But if that answer fails to satisfy, and you press me further, I’m likely to say spring.

Spring is arguably the most inspiring and important of the British seasons. As a photographer of nature it is unquestionably the most demanding one too. The problem is that there is too damned much to photograph! Down the river, up on the moor, in the woods, out at sea or simply through the window; Springtime always provides a plethora of subject matter and photographic opportunities. Invariably I try to capture it all, and every spring I’m found running around like a headless chicken trying to photograph as much as I can in as many environments as possible. Burnout by summer is unavoidable.

So when my weary eyes stumbled upon a Mute Swan nest last summer, I was half tempted to walk away and forget I saw it. How could I though? My eyes had connected with the loving and expectant parent sat on the nest and that was it, I was hooked. The swans had imprinted on my summer.

Located on a small, local nature reserve next to a hand car wash station and motorhome lockup, the nest sat beside what was once a gravel pit. Sandwiched between the river Wharfe and ever-laden A64, between the thundering HGVs and the flightpath to and from Leeds Bradford airport, it’s hard to describe it as a quiet reserve. Yet there is a sense of peace here and on a mid-week visit you’d be unlucky if you ran into another person. Maybe it’s the constant hullabaloo surrounding this small wilderness that on the one hand keeps visitor numbers modest and on the other appeals to one of our most conspicuous birds.

Gravel Pit at Sunset

I was more than hooked, I was obsessed. I visited the pair every spare moment I physically could. I was not so fixated however to miss other significant events in my wider surroundings. I also noted the Common Blue damselflies dancing among the abundant English waterlilies; the pair of Tufted ducks bobbing about in the centre of the flooded pit and the cautious moorhen tentatively treading over the lily pads as a hopeful buzzard glides with intent over the surrounding treetops. I also find two Canada geese nesting on the opposite bank and have a more unusual, curious even, encounter with a mole as it furiously scrambled passed me above the grass before disappearing into a thicket of Yellow iris on the borders of the water. I returned a couple of days later, still puzzled and intrigued by the mole experience. However, when I discovered the mole’s soft, motionless body beside the water and studied the predated Canada goose nest, my heart sank and an anxiety for my treasured swans began to grow.

I was about to leave for a family holiday in Northern Ireland and I was now nervous. My recent encounter with the hard reality of nature had tainted my future hopes for my latest obsession.

I needed restoring. I needed to know that something, anything could survive this cursed pit. My hopes were answered by the appearance of Little Grebes; a whole family of them. A mother so small that at times she seemed smaller than her downy brood. She had successfully raised three thriving chicks. If one of our smallest water birds can do it, surely one of our biggest could. Optimism restored and hope replenished, I left the two swans and their four eggs in the precarious hands of Mother Nature.

Little Grebe mother with Chick

Ten days of scorching weather passed before our return. I couldn’t wait to get back to the reserve, but I had to. With the car unloaded and family relatively settled, my suitcase would stay packed until I had checked the status of my swans.

The nest appeared to be abandoned with two unattended, unhatched eggs, and no swans to be seen. I continued to return to the reserve, hoping that I might either glimpse them or discover a clue as to what had occurred. Eventually I ran into an older gentleman who had seen the two Mute swans move their two cygnets from the gravel pits over to the river.

Not long after this revelation I finally caught up with the family a couple of miles downstream from their nest. There were not two cygnets though, just one. Now reunited with the new parents and their one surviving offspring I didn’t want to let them out of my sight. If I could, I would have camped out beside them for the rest of the summer!

I visited morning, afternoon and evening. Some days I would see them, some days I wouldn’t. As the weeks went by, it felt the family of three recognised me when I showed up. They would often cautiously approach as I set up my tripod. Sometimes I would set up with no sign of them and within minutes they’d appear from nowhere.

I’m not sure I can capture in words or pictures the thrill of winning the trust of these two immense birds and their precious cygnet. Maybe it’s enough to say that they left a metaphorical mark on me more permanent than a tattoo, and provided an experience worth more than the most exclusive summer holiday package on offer.   

As an avid watcher of Springwatch and many other stunning wildlife broadcasts, I’m acutely aware of how neat and well crafted the storylines often are. But as an obsessive wildlife observer, I’m painfully aware that such neat stories are actually rare. Wildlife drifts in and out of our lives. Nature is unpredictable, it can be inconvenient and often gives us more questions than answers.

Mute Swan with Cygnet

My last encounter with the Mute swan family was an evening in August. The cygnet was a little larger than a mallard but smaller than a goose and the parents were nowhere to be seen. I stayed until my eyes could barely make out the shape of the cygnet anymore, still no sign of any parent. The following morning, week and month, still nothing. No parents, no cygnet. Later on, someone else who had been observing the cygnet said they’d seen it further downstream, unsuccessfully trying to join two different adult Mute swans travelling upstream.

I assumed or hoped the cygnet had made its way further down the Wharfe into the neighbouring town of Otley, where more swans and expectant waterfowl linger for the sporadic feedings from members of the public. As winter settled in, on a stretch of river halfway towards Otley I caught a glimpse of a mottled brown cygnet. I can’t be sure it was my cygnet, but I felt that it was. Scared of proving myself wrong, I simply let the lonesome figure drift out of my vision. It was as close to an ending I’d get. It was enough.

What about the Little Grebe family? Well I’ve had regular sightings of these minute water birds on the River Wharfe near the reserve.  Sometimes I can see at least four at one time. Who knows, maybe they’ll make a good project for me this summer!

You can find more photos from my time with the Swans on the banks of the Wharfe in my photo projects here: https://www.walkingphotographer.co.uk/folio-projects/swan-on-the-wharfe/

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