Whilst some of our group were identifying wading birds, the attention of others was drawn to a pair of courting mute swans. It was early March and we'd just sat down for lunch. The swans were on a nearby lake, as totally engrossed in each other as a few of us became with them. The weather was mild and bright, and the birds' pure white feathers and deep orange and black bills seemed to gleam in the sunshine.
As we sat entranced the birds performed a stylised, almost balletic ritual as a prelude to mating. Its difficult now to remember the exact sequence but key elements included head shaking separately and in unison - head dipping, again separately and in unison - submerging the head underwater for a few seconds, separately and in unison – momentarily coming together to form the classic heart shape with head and neck - stretching the neck and head along the flanks and back as though preening - swimming towards each other, then at the last minute treading water and rearing up breast to breast. The final actions were first one swan draping its neck over the other's back before straightening up, and then the other doing the same. Then the finale – a somewhat more inelegant action with the male treading and pushing himself up on to her back, grabbing the back of her neck in his bill and mating.
Perhaps these swans were breeding together for the first time, as pairs that have been together for some time tend not to engage in much courtship. If they were breeding for the first time the male (or cob) would have been around 3 years old and the female (or hen) 2 years old. Our pair will go on to construct a large nest of dead rushes, dried grass and sticks close to water. The cob will fetch the materials and she will arrange them to her liking. Usually between 5 – 7 eggs are laid and will take 35 – 41 days to hatch. If our pair are successful in mating its likely that they will stay together for life. However, if one dies the other may pair up with another. The maximum recorded age of a mute swan is 28 years old so our pair will hopefully go on to breed together for many years.
Whether the swans are successful or not, some of our group were spellbound and deeply appreciative of the spectacle – I've seen sections of it before but never the overall complexity, gentleness and beauty of the whole event.