Recording swans

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Today I want to share my adventures in recording swans at Whiteknights Lake.

More particularly I want to tell you about one swan… this swan.

From listening to this cob and observing his activities, I think that he is anxiously awaiting the arrival of some cygnets that are not yet hatched. A pen – his mate, I presume – is currently incubating some eggs on a nest tucked out of sight at the uppermost corner of the Whiteknights Lake.

A week or so ago he seemed to take exception to a small family of Egyptian Geese. The pair were doing something that looked a lot like mating while their two goslings grazed in the grass nearby; their mating activities began with soft growls, grunts and huffy noises which built to a loud honkfest, at which point the cob flew dramatically across the lake to see what was going on, grunting and flapping his wings in a display of power and size. He then got out of the water, puffed himself up and menaced the young goose family for a bit. After this, he drove a pair of Canada geese apart, and stalked the male goose round and round on the grass rather quietly but with unmistakable body language and a low level hiss that could be heard at close quarters.

This weekend, the same Canada goose was once again the focus of swan wrath (from the same cob). Mark said “these two clearly have history” and I think he is right. In this photo the goose is at the edge of the water making uncertain honking noises, while the cob circles in the lake nearby, scooting over in a very aggressive pose if the goose looks like it might be thinking about getting into the water.

After watching a long stand off between the swan and the goose, and having done a big lap of the whole lake, we later found the same Canada goose wandering about in a field by itself, unsure of whether or not to try once more to re-enter the lake. The cob was making big, casual circles in the water, lazily grazing and on patrol.

I got some nice recordings a couple of weeks ago of some of this; you can hear the Egyptian geese mating, the Canada goose, and the stampy activities of the swan on aporee on the town and country soundmap on which I’m currently working for the MERL. I also saw the cob chasing off a heron, but have not yet edited and uploaded that sound! For those of you who prefer to hear recordings through soundcloud, they are uploaded there as well. PRO-TIP – you can hit play on this playlist and carry on reading if you would like to hear the sounds while reading on…

I love how listening regularly in the same place reveals the patterns, rhythms and behaviour of the seasons and the inhabitants and while I have been stood still for long stretches of time watching this cob and his mate, I confess that I have formed quite an attachment to the pair, and anxiously await the arrival of their cygnets (though not as anxiously I think as the cob). We know all the families of ducks and swans and geese at Whiteknights Lake, and it’s an absolute pleasure to become more familiar with their sounds and characters each time that we see them on our walks.

All this reminded me of the wondrous chapter in Ludwig Koch’s book, Memoirs of a Birdman, in which he describes his own field recording adventures with swans. By happy coincidence many of Ludwig’s listening and recording adventures took place at Abbotsbury Swannery, a place I know well, and which I visited several years ago with Mark and his family. Today I enjoyed digging out the photos I took there, and I thought you might like to see them, too. It is wondrous to imagine that the same swans I saw a decade ago may be descended from those that Koch recorded in 1946. Though his recording equipment would have been much more cumbersome than mine, and though he was at the very start of field-recording as a practice, there are some lovely correlations between his observances and mine, and it’s lovely to read his notes and to feel us both listening to swans across time.

We saw in the distance a pair of mute swans which I soon discovered were wild and which, as I later learnt, had come from the Danube delta. As we carefully drew near, the pen remained sitting, while the cob – although it did not attack – assumed a very aggressive attitude. With wings raised and stiffened neck, it threw back its head and uttered a loud trumpeting call. To this day I have never again heard this sound, but ever since that incident in Laeken I have been haunted by the idea of studying and recording the call-notes of the bird known here as mute swan…

…I knew of Abbotsbury, the oldest swannery in the world. Its origin goes far back into history, and it is the only one of its kind in the British Isles. It was in existence in the days of King Canute. Now it is part of the estate of the Earl of Ilchester who, with his family, is greatly interested in the preservation of swans. The swannery is stuated within a kind of natural preserve and harbours over a hundred different varieties of bird… [The] wild swans feed mainly on a marine grass called zostera marina. It grows under the water and the swans seem to love it. There may be a shortage of this grass at Abbotsbury in times of drought or during a severe winter, but in general it is plentiful, and there have sometimes been more than 1,500 wild swans settled there…

…On a stormy May morning I was back in Abbotsbury… we transported our gear through the beautiful tropical garden and selected a rather muddy site for the studio about three yards from a swans’ nest. The swans looked at us defiantly, but since we took no notice they did not interfer with us as we built our hide-out… I set out first of all to explore the territory. I went between the bulky nests of breeding swans, and was greeted by an angry hissing note from the cob, which spread its wings to attack , threatening and challenging any intruder, whether man or one of its own species…

…I had also to get closely acquainted with the habits of the swans… The wild swan is too shy and cautious to give you a chance to approach it. Though they have not many enemies, apart from man, wild swans choose resorts where they can command a view of the neighbourhood, and at the least sign of danger they fly away… Swans are vegetarians, and protect lakes and ponds against an overgrowth of aquatic plants. They are also dictators. They need Lebensraum, [lots of personal space?] and, although so graceful, they are aggressive birds, especially during the breeding season, when the male bird will furiously attack not only intruder of his own species but also man. One once stood between me and my recording gear. I did not want to use force, nor did I wait for one of the terrific blows from one of the cob’s wings. I preferred a tactical retreat through swampy ground, a detour of half a mile…

…I have often noticed that rain and storm will suddenly stop for a short period before dawn. I also noticed that this was a favourite bathing hour for the swans of Abbotsbury, who assembled for a family meeting regularly on a certain spot in the Fleet… This was perhaps a chance to listen to the conversation of the so-called mute swan. My recording gear was about two hundred yards away and the swans could neither see nor hear us…

…When I played back the results of the series of such night recordings, I came to the conclusion that the vocal performances and movements of the swans during the breeding season, before the arrival of the cygnets, are not so limited as a casual observer might believe. There are sounds easy to identify: the clumsy but very rhythmical stepping in and out of the water: wing-flapping: landing in water: taking off: and the unique flight with its strong and powerful vibratory rhythm…

…A good many of the various greeting notes, ranging from low and threatening grunts to soft groaning, could be recorded, but they may have a different meaning according to their differing pitches. Most strange was a loud alarm note, which I was lucky enough to capture. There was danger in the vicinity, and the swanherd believed that it might have been an otter…

…I frequently heard a variant of the trumpeting sound, not to be compared with that clear ringing sound but fairly loud and more snorting. Very occasionally I heard the complete call, ending with a tremulous vibration and at a low frequency…

…There was nothing that could irritate the bird at night. In the daytime, however, when I saw visitors coming close to the nest, the cob took up its attacking position and, sometimes after the people had gone away, he would make this trumpeting, with wings raised and neck stiffened, ready to strike. It could be a victory call, similar to the ‘V’ call of a stag in the rutting season.

– Ludwig Koch, Memoirs of a Birdman, pp.81-5, 1955

1 thought on “Recording swans

  1. How beautiful! Thanks so much for posting this! You are so lucky in your lebensraum (German dictionary says it’s “habitat,” which is nicely field-sciency of them, but your definition seems much more likely in this context). Love the fluffy cygnets, of course and the lake itself is such a vacation for the eyes. I’m also enjoying the recording. A+!

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