Wednesday 17 December 2014

Blow your own trumpet 17th December 2014

This weekend past, news filtered through that a pair of Trumpeter Swans had joined a flock of  fifty or so Mute Swans that were frequenting a partially flooded beet field at the RSPB's Boyton and Hollesley Marshes, two adjoining coastal reserves in the lower reaches of the Alde-Ore Estuary in Suffolk. Trumpeter Swans are an unlikely vagrant to Britain and the debate continues on various internet forums about their provenance. Me? Well I remain equivocal and all I wish to venture on the subject of their origin is that I have absolutely no idea. 

Whether their arrival is taken seriously or not is up to each and every individual birder to decide. I went with Justin following a text from him on Sunday as I fancied a day out in Suffolk on an RSPB Reserve I had not visited before and also decided that I would like to see the swans. We were in no hurry and finally left Oxfordshire for Suffolk on a dull but mild morning on the following Wednesday.

The long and tedious journey out of Oxfordshire across Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire finally brought us to the village of Boyton in Suffolk some two and three quarter hours after our departure. Then our written directions ran out and stopping a friendly lady walking her dog in the lane at Boyton we were somewhat perplexed to hear from her that although she had lived in the village all her life she didn't have a clue as to the whereabouts of the reserve.

As with our local Otmoor Reserve in Oxfordshire the RSPB seemed somewhat coy about giving anyone a clue as to where their reserve was, as demonstrated by the acute lack of any sign whatsoever. We drove further down the narrow lane that bisects the village and stopped at a T junction of wet and narrow lanes. 'Left or right Justin?'  'No idea.'  Just at that moment a car came from the lane to our right and stopped. The driver waved and wound his window down and said one word  'Swans?'  'Yes please' we chorused. 'Go down the lane I have just come up'. 'OK. Many thanks'.

We drove down the lane to a somewhat decrepit farm presumably now owned by the RSPB and a small parking area. A gate blocked further vehicular access down the lane but a side gate for pedestrians led onto the vast expanse of marshes extending out to and then beyond the Butley River and the curiously double named Alde-Ore Estuary. All very confusing. In the far distance the red and white hoops of Orford Ness Lighthouse stood out by the sea. 

The River Butley
Orford Ness Lighthouse
We walked along the muddy track and then up onto the top of a grassy bank bounding the north side of the river. The vast panoply of flat marshland and eternal sky lay before us, a green and pale blue canvas stretching into the infinite sunlit distance.

Birders were conspicuous by their absence. We passed only one other couple on our way out along the track to the river bank and a lone figure stood far off on the horizon looking from the bank, through a scope, down and across to a field full of swans. This  surely must be where the Trumpeter Swans were residing. We walked out along the bank with the wide sweep of the tidal river to our left as Common Redshanks, the epitomy of this desolate but uplifting landscape, floated their evocative, tremulous calls on the mild southwest wind.

The sun shone low on the horizon, so near are we now to the equinox and finally the welcome prospect of lengthening days. We walked on, our lone figures silhouetted and dwarfed against the huge backdrop of sky. Bearded Tits pinged their calls from feathery reeds that bent to the wind and whispered in quiet harmony

We could clearly see the swans in the field of beet from some distance away and it did not take long to distinguish the two Trumpeter Swans standing a little distance from the flock. 

The Stile
Justin in action
We walked further along the bank as it continued its sinuous way and eventually came to a stile which once crossed put us directly opposite the swans.

Mute Swans
The Mute Swans formed a flock of fifty eight adults, immatures and juveniles whiling away their time amongst the beet; some sat almost hidden by the leaves with just their heads and necks like white periscopes rising above the green leaved carpet whilst others slept and yet others pecked lazily at the beet leaves. The pair of Trumpeter Swans maintained a short distance from the Mute Swans. Very much in their own space. 

The Trumpeter Swans
Finding flocks of swans such as these idling away the day in fields of beet is a familiar scene in winter. It is also immensely relaxing to watch as their unhurried and untroubled aura seems to transmute itself to one's senses and creates a similar and soothing influence. The swans are stuffed full of leaves as their bulging crops testify and now at noon they lazily pick at one or two leaves but are not really hungry. 

The Trumpeters in similar circumstance, desultorily picked at the leaves, occasionally wandered a few feet and would stand doing nothing in particular. I watched as one stood with neck bowed and eyes closed, literally asleep on its feet. On another occasion I watched as one opened its all black bill displaying an unexpected rose pink interior. They were quite beautiful, pure white with an enormous black triangular bill, their elegant long necks bending or straightening depending on the moment.

A Mute Swan approached them in a lazy amble and the male Trumpeter discreetly left his mate, walked towards it in a slow but purposeful manner and the Mute Swan got the message and retreated. Although mostly relaxed the Trumpeters were wary and vigilant at times, raising their necks and displaying a nervousness at any unusual movement or activity from Justin or myself.

We watched them for around an hour and then leaving them wandered back along the top of the bank. A Goldeneye flew upriver and a scattering of Curlews and Common Redshanks fed on the expanses of tidal  mud. A small flock of Lapwings and Golden Plover flew up from one of the fields circling in mild alarm before descending back to earth while a male European Stonechat was flycatching from the top of a hawthorn, rising high in the air and then descending to sit at the very topmost point of the bush, ever alert. 

We left the elevated river bank and made our way back along the muddy track to the farm buildings with small flocks of Wigeon, Teal and no less than five Little Egrets feeding avidly in a field of waterlogged grass and flashes of water. Beyond the ducks Black tailed Godwits and Curlew also fed energetically, probing the soggy grass with their long bills.

A Mute Swan, a conflicting picture of lumbering beauty flew heavily past us its wings humming musically as they strained to keep its heavy body airborne

Wigeon and Teal
Even by early afternoon the light was gently subsiding as we made our way back to the car. While we changed our footwear by the car, for the drive home, an impressive Hereford Bull complete with a ring through his nose walked towards us, pulling up short of the fence and regarded us with a very funny look in his eye.You could hardly blame it!

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