By Charlotte Owen
The final birds of The Twelve Days of Christmas are seven swans a-swimming, and the mute swan can be seen swimming on almost every pond, lake and river in Sussex. The UK is home to the largest population in Europe and these feathered heavyweights are among the bulkiest flying birds in the world. Their powerful wings make a wheezing whistle with every stroke, audible from half a mile away and providing a useful cue to look up (or duck) as they pass overhead like low-flying planes. They do need a lengthy aquatic runway to get airborne, seeming to walk on water as their huge webbed feet help to propel them towards take-off – and the splash landings are equally impressive.
For most of the year, mute swans are the only swans in Sussex but each winter our royal residents are joined by distant relatives from the far and frozen north. The Bewick’s swans arrive from Siberia, while the whooper swans (not whopper, although they are the larger of the two) come from Iceland. They both have yellow bills, in contrast to the mute swan’s orange, but it can be tricky to tell the yellow-billed species apart. The Bewick’s has a rounder head and smaller patch of yellow at the base of a black bill, whereas the wedge-headed whooper seems to have dipped its yellow bill into a tin of black paint.
The Bewick’s arrive in bigger numbers and are more likely to be seen in Sussex. The Arun valley is one of their favourite wintering grounds and the same swans return to the same sites year after year. They make the same pit stops along their migration route too. Just like us, they are creatures of habit and convenience, faithful to the service stations that can guarantee a decent meal and a safe place to rest. This valuable knowledge is passed down through the generations as parents play tour guide and teach their children the best route south. Upon arrival there is a big family reunion as they meet up with the previous years’ youngsters, happy to spend the winter holiday swanning around Sussex together.