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Taking flight

Mark Nicolaides watches a family of cygnets learning to fly

The flight lessons were getting more and more physical

The flight lessons were getting more and more physical

We were well into autumn and the cygnets had one thing on their minds; they wanted to spread their wings for real and explore the big wide world.
Lifting their heavy bodies into the air was going to require them to build up a considerable amount of muscle. They’d already started their exercise programme, but now, they would take it to a whole new level. Over the next couple of weeks, the youngsters would shakedown, run around, bathe and stand on the spot, flapping their wings, like never before.
With lengthier nights, they slept longer and so were fully rested the next day. They would typically start with a feed and they were consuming so much more food than normal. One of the most sought after food items were the roots of the nearby rushes.

Practising wing flapping to build up the flight muscles

Practising wing flapping to build up the flight muscles

 

With summer having been and gone, the roots were easier to pull up from the river bed than before, the youngsters used to love swinging them around in their bills and breaking off bite-sized chunks to swallow. They were going to need the extra calories for what was about to come.
After having a morning preen, they would settle their feathers by shaking out their body and wings. But their wing shakedowns could sometimes last up to thirty seconds. They would stand on the spot moving those wings through their full range, up and down, up and down, up and down, time after time.
It was possible to hear the air being displaced around them, creating a considerable draft to their rear and underside.
Mum and Dad were watching their youngsters get stronger and stronger by the day. Instead of doing their normal run around (playing) routine across the water;  the cygnets would now run and flap their wings at the same time. They kind of flapped their way across the surface — it was as though they were trying to fly without taking off — for the first time in the four months since they’d hatched, they were taking their first steps towards becoming airborne.

These tiny balls of fluff would grow to be powerful flyers in just a few months

These tiny balls of fluff would grow to be powerful flyers in just a few months

Several times a day, they’d go through this routine of flapping their way across the river. Although their wing movements were not entirely coordinated yet, it was a positive sign for the future. Judging by all the displaying, cheeping and chirping, they loved it. After a week of practising wing flapping around the bay, their mother was ready to take their flying development onto the next step. They needed to get airborne. Although their wing synchronisation was much improved, they needed to learn how to use their enhanced wing power in a more focused way, to achieve the all-important lift-off, and the best way to get that was to follow a great example. Although their father was now in the recuperation stage of his moult and back to territorial patrols, he was still unable to fly. So it fell to the dutiful mother – the only adult with a full set of flight feathers – to give the young ones their flying lessons.
Up until that point, the trainees would typically run and flap across the water in a random fashion. However, they had yet to discover the key to getting their bulk off the water was to have a long run up. If they did that, they’d acquire sufficient speed, to generate enough pressure difference across their wings, to lift them skywards. One morning I tried to tell them, but they didn’t understand my non-swan language theoretical instructions, or my left-handed, two-fingered running motion across the water.

The last of the cygnets turned his head towards me as he took off; within seconds he was gone

The last of the cygnets turned his head towards me as he took off; within seconds he was gone

 

Instead, they thought I was calling them over for an early lunch and huddled around pecking at my fingers begging for food. But there was serious business to attend to; Mum called them all to attention and, with an upstream breeze blowing, led them all to the top of the bay for their first lesson.
Once they’d reached the top of the bay, I rather hoped they’d just get on with it; with Mum leading the way, they’d all take-off in unison and provide a spectacular sight and sound show for Dad and I to admire. But alas, things were in fact a little more disjointed. First of all, their father hadn’t been on any of his normal morning patrols yet, so he headed off in the downstream direction to make sure that area maintained its ‘all clear’ status.
With him disappearing from sight, mother and children settled down to eating strips of overhanging reeds and pulling up old root stems to devour. This carried on for over half an hour and I thought this would just be yet another feeding party, rather than the much anticipated flying extravaganza. My attention drifted and I soon found myself watching the numerous kingfishers chasing each other around the bay. The bay had a large minnow population and, with the water being very shallow, they pulled in these predatory birds like bees to the proverbial honey pot. They would hover ten feet or more above the water and then crash dive into the shoals of fish; somehow avoiding colliding with the river bed.

Much earlier in the year, taking off and flying away from Mum and Dad seemed a long way off

Much earlier in the year, taking off and flying away from Mum and Dad seemed a long way off

I carried on watching for quite a while until something else caught my attention. It was the swans: a call, in fact, a call from their mother. As I looked up, she was holding station in midstream, with her neck bolt upright and her head angled upwards. The cygnets briefly looked at her, but before long, they went back to their own business. Again, trying to get their attention, she let out a call and paddled about in midstream for a few minutes. All the time her neck was fully extended and looking along her bill in the downstream direction.
Suddenly, the upstream breeze picked up and blew against her body — she was now able to hold her position in mid-river without having to paddle about. With her brilliant white plumage making the most of the bright sunlight, she was spot-lit, centre stage, ready for the lesson to begin. With the young apprentices still filling their gizzards, the moment had come: simultaneously launching her body forwards and unfurling her impressive wings, she galloped into the wind. As her great wings beat up and down, clattering the water surface, a thunderous roar filled the entire bay. The cygnets looked on in confusion as she sped past me and down the river. Arriving at the bottom of the bay, majestically waterskiing to rest, she gave one dip of her head into the water and completed her demonstration with a triumphant shakedown.
The cygnets appeared befuddled — all four huddled together, with their necks craned and looking around as if to say: ‘Mummy, what do we do now?’
A call could be heard from her end of the bay. Looking across, with her wings partially raised and bill slightly lifted, I could see her watching expectantly to see whether they would follow her lead. With Mum starting to make her way upstream, there was another great clattering of wings behind me and as I spun round, there they were; each one running across the surface, wings beating in unison as they made their own long dash to be with Mum. However unlike their mother, they didn’t actually achieve proper lift-off, at best, their tails were still draping along in the water when they ‘flew’.
A few seconds later, skimming the sun dazzled surface, they came to a halt a few metres from their instructor. Upon reaching her, it was a time of great joy and celebration; with a number of courtship head turning gestures and the fluffing up of feathers, the whole group high fived each other as they burst into a chorus of chirps, cheeps and grunts in jubilant triumph. All four cygnets decided to throw caution to the wind and have a mass bathing session, by running around the bay and going mad. Soon they’d be able to fly and be free to explore new lakes, new rivers, new lands, new everything. They thrashed their wings around, beating the water into a foam, diving below the surface and then rearing up right in front of me They seemed to take great delight in racing straight past me at full speed, splashing me with water and making me duck to avoid getting caught by their wings. I’d never seen a group of animals so blatantly having such a rip-roaring entertaining, fun time before. After initially joining in, their mother drifted off to the slack water for a more ladylike preen and nibble. One-by-one, the cygnets assembled over on the grassy bank for a sedate clean and tidy-up. After all that activity, their feathers needed some serious attention and their bodies were exhausted.
I started to wonder how many more times I’d witness it. With the cygnets nearly grown up into proper juvenile swans, these days were strictly numbered. Soon they’d be heading off into the skies. ◗

Abridged from Swan Life – an account of the trials and tribulations experienced by a pair of mute swans, as they struggle to raise a family on Dorset’s River Stour – by Mark Nicolaides (a Dorset-based wildlife photographer, who creates images and writes about our native wildlife).
Swan Life is available at £9.99 including postage from
www.swanlife.com

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