The native Irish swan variety is the mute swan, Cygnus olar, which, despite its name, isn't mute at all. Just try throwing bread crusts to the flock and hear what happens! The swan is a very elegant bird with a long neck and slender head. It glides through the water effortlessly and majestically, sovereign of all it surveys. Occasionally, its graceful head and neck dips under the water while it grazes on waterweed. Unlike the mallard, it has learned to accomplish this maneuver without pointing its arse in the air.
Swans are vegetarian - all those other birds can make a show of themselves scurrying around after fish and other motile stuff if they want! Cormorants and shags even get all their feathers WET! Then they have to climb out of the water and hang their wings out to dry. They perch on navigation buoys, wings outstretched, as if begging to be crucified. Most are disappointed but the really enthusiastically persistent ones get shot. All this unseemly behavior is beneath the dignity of swans. They are snobbish and indifferent to the goings-on of lesser water birds unless somebody is dishing out bread crusts. One of their endearing features, to those who have an anthropogenic bent, is a life commitment to their partners. After mating, they establish a territory along a stretch of water. The extent of their territory is determined by population pressure but, once established, the boundaries are defended vigorously. Whatever happens, they stay together until one dies. Unlike the Children of Lir, who survived as swans for 900 years before kicking the bucket, the life expectancy of non-mythological swans is somewhat more modest. Once a partner dies, the survivor is ousted from the territory by a pair of newlyweds seeking their own territory and re-joins the flock of unattached birds.
The River Suir is a great place to see swans.
Our very first Suir survey took nearly a week to do because we had to establish baseline conditions above and below a proposed industrial development. Being on expenses, DK and I stayed in the Clonmel Arms Hotel. Mr. Beeches was on the same expenses, but he chose to sleep in the van. 'More comfortable,' he said. And it didn't cost anything. He had his little sleeping bag, with a little inflatable pillow, a little gas stove for boiling the water for the tea in the morning, and a little gas lamp that was used for finding his Woodbines at night. He was as happy as a pig in shite.[suggest change "in shite" to "in a van."] Approaching the van on the first morning day, I heard a distorted whistling noise.
Mr. Beeches' whistling ability is irritatingly like that made by skylarks very early in the morning when one is badly hungover in a tent that cows have investigated during the night. He can whistle the 'Halleluiah Chorus' to perfection. His 'Danny Boy' leaves one in tears because he always does it in places where it would be imprudent to slaughter him. Most people aren't aware that proper whistling is a rare skill. It's a bit like being able to play the blues harp. Aficionados of both have to have effluviant salivary glands, bulgy cheeks and teeth.
This particular morning, the trilling sounded a bit like the noise a radio station makes when it's not tuned in properly. Sort of fuzzy. Mr. Beeches was sitting on the step of the van, whistling something unidentifiable with verve. Steaming mug of tea at his side, smouldering cigarette anchored in the thread of the left front tyre, toothbrush in one hand and front teeth in the other, he brushed methodically and whistled adontically as he watched the river closely in case something he could sell floated by.
We've been doing biological surveys each summer on the Suir between Kilsheelin and Carrick-on-Suir for quite a while and have come to know the territorial boundaries of each swan couple. Only a couple of stretches are suitable, and territories change slightly from year to year, but not much. We keep the outboard motor ticking over right from the start so we can steer the boat through the weeds. That way, the propeller gets tangled almost immediately, so we don't have to bother much with it anymore.
Occasionally, we have to use it in earnest, especially when maneuvering the boat through a nasty little bend in the river near the tower house at Kilsheelin, and when we have to stop to take samples. Mostly, we let the current carry the boat while we watch the sand martins and swallows flitter over the river, scooping a drink from the surface or a mayfly from the air. The 'plop' of a rising trout punctuates their twittering. The occasional heron, standing on spindly legs in the shallows, looks Cretaceous. Mallard mom and dad shepherd their brood to safety under a low overhanging branch until we pass. Sometimes, one becomes alarmed and scurries away, using the 'broken wing' technique to distract predators, only to soar into the air and fly overhead back to its brood, uttering the Anatidaean equivalent of 'Nyaaahh nyaaahh' at us when we are not a threat anymore.
Swans don't use the 'broken wing' technique, so I was surprised to see one using it a few years ago. We had just drifted down below Sampling Site 2. We always know Sampling Site 2 because it's just upstream of the farmhouse with the clothes hanging out to dry on the washing line. It's one of those difficult sampling sites because it's too deep for James to wade in without drowning. The Health and Safety Authority says allowing people to drown is a mortal sin, even in the interests of science.
So we had to be inventive.
Thus, The Claw!!!
Irish rugby football fans will be familiar with The Claw who is renowned for his horticultural expertise. He buries opponents' heads in the playing pitch hoping they won't grow again. OUR Claw was invented by James, who acquires things and has developed the art of lateral thinking to an admirably deflective degree.
In normal situations, biologists use a technique known as 'kick sampling.' They wade out into the stream and place a net attached to a long handle on the riverbed. Then they stand upstream of the net and literally kick the riverbed for a specified time - usually 90 seconds. The detached aquatic animals, such as mayfly and stonefly nymphs, are swept into the net and taken ashore where they are identified and counted. Water quality is assessed by the relative abundance of each type. The enthusiasm of kick-samplers is assessed by the frequency with which they have to replace wellies.
Sampling Site 2 is not a normal situation. There, the Suir is a stream that has been growing up for about 30 miles and has developed attitude. Like people who hate being tickled in a particular spot, it hates being kick sampled at Sampling Site 2, so we use The Claw, which is made from an adjustable clamp embedded in a sewer rod. It is surprisingly effective, and the river doesn't seem to mind being tickled.
We have to anchor the boat to hold it steady against the current. I plunge the net to the riverbed and James, being younger, uses The Claw to rake the stones and gravel. All the dislodged beasties get swept into the net which is then hauled aboard and the contents dumped into a white tray filled with river water. After a few minutes, they start to explore their new environs and, by counting population diversity, its easy for us to determine the state of the river at Site 2.
Just below Site 2 is a smooth stretch of water where the river flows slowly and deeply. A pair of swans has occupied it since we started the surveys. Usually, they swim away from us until we start to catch up. Sometimes they paddle to the other side of the river, giving us that haughty swan look that is the envy of wrens. Other times they take flight and circle back overhead, making that 'whoosh' sound that only swans' wings can make.
This time, they swam away from the Dory for quite a while. They kept looking back to check progress, and paddled faster as the boat got closer. Much later than usual, one decided it was time to fly, and the other tried to follow. It tried and tried to lift off, but one wing was damaged and it couldn't fly. Its partner flew a few yards and came back. They tried again, but still no lift-off.
"Come on!! Let's get away from these assholes!"
"I'm trying!! Damned wing won't work."
"Try a bit harder!! You can make it!!"
"Okay!! Here goes!! Let's FLY!!!!!"
"I'm beside you!! See? I'm flying! You can too!!"
"I CAN'T!!!! I'm just flapping and floundering!"
"NO!!!!! You GO!!! I'll be fine, love!"
And it did, placing itself between the Dory and its partner, daring us to approach.
The Dory drifted by and the propeller collected more weed.
They weren't there this year.
© John Dory MMV
About the Author
'John Dory' advises Irish industry and Government agencies on pollution prevention and control measures