Every year a distant bugling call heralds the arrival of whooper swans from Iceland. There are usually a few around the Dinnet lochs, but we see most of “our” whoopers as birds passing through on their way to other wintering sites. The whoopers arrive usually in October, and pass through for the next month or so. They tend to make the jump from Iceland in one trip, a distance of about 600 miles. All the more remarkable when you think they’re accompanied by their young, who will never have flown anything like that distance before. Migrating whooper swans also have another remarkable claim to fame. They can fly as high as jet aircraft, with a flock being spotted by an airline pilot off Ireland at about 28,000 feet.(They’re not the highest flyers though…bar-headed geese migrate over the Himalayas at 29,000 –plus feet and a Ruppell’s griffon vulture hit a jet at 37,000 feet in the 1970s. The jet came off better; it landed safely, albeit damaged, but the vulture still holds the altitude record for a bird).
Whooper swans are amazingly social and loyal birds. They tend to pair for life and can show remarkable loyalty to a mate – two years ago, a pair stayed here into May, with one bird only departing after its mate had died – it was probably sick or injured and couldn’t fly. Whoopers also made the news in England when a pair bred there after one bird injured a wing and couldn’t migrate. Unsurprisingly, they were nicknamed “Romeo and Julietta”!
So, check out the swans. That pair of swans you look at could be a different kind to the local mute swans we’re used to seeing. The best (and easiest) way to tell them apart is call- if they bob their heads and go ”Hoop-hoop. Whoop-whoop”- its whoopers. Mute swans are usually silent but can make a “gronk” or hissing noise. The other thing to look out for is the yellow beak- mute swans have an orange beak but (on adult) whoopers, it is black and yellow.