Big thank you from

Swans - all the way from Iceland

by Paul Cormacain

WE looked out at the small lake surrounded by autumnal colours, and there, swimming in the lake, was a family of whooper swans. There were two adults and three young, and they had just flown all the way from Iceland.

The range of colours was magnificent, with all imaginable shades of brown, russet, gold, and even a touch of green. Some tree leaves were red and crimson, and while we may have enjoyed their sight when they were in their growing glory, they looked even better as they prepared for their winter rest.

The swans were graceful creatures, and they blended in perfectly with the surrounding's autumnal glory. The adults were mostly white in colour, but their bills were yellow with black tips. For whooper swans, a large birds of about 150 cms, the dietary requirements are leaves, stems and roots of aquatic plants. If they come across any dropped grain, or overlooked potatoes, they will eat them as well.

All swans are prone to reddish staining from the oxides in water, and you can regularly come across different types of swans in different habitats with some staining. It is believed that Whoopers are more liable to have the staining than either mute or bewick swans.

We walked on, enjoying the swans apparently retreating into the distance, enjoying the occasional bird, and admiring the multi-coloured scenery. Then we came across wild strawberries.

This year we grew many strawberry plants, with a view to making pots and pots of strawberry jam. This year was a bad year for strawberries, well, the ones in our garden anyway. They did not like the weather, and the weather did not like them, with the result that the crop was greatly below expectations. With some of the plants, the fruit was so slow in growing that the slugs got the fruit before they reached maturity.

We always have a few wild strawberries in the garden, and no matter how much culling goes on there are still strawberry plants the next year. The fruit are nice, but too small to do anything with, except pop the odd one in the mouth. The domestic strawberry plants, apart from being inadequate, had a very limited fruiting period. The wild strawberries are still fruiting.

So it was no surprise to come across wild strawberry plants, some with flowers on them. Just like spring, we thought. We searched through the leaves, and came across wild strawberries, which we duly ate.

Having looked through three flower books, and they all say that the Fragaria vesca, which is what we are talking about, flowers in April through July. So how come they don't know that they are supposed to be in winter mode near the middle of November? How come they are flowering and fruiting in November?

As with all strawberries, long runners are sent out at intervals to form new plants. As I write, our domestic plants are sending out runners still, if they had been as good as producing fruit as they are at still producing runners, we could have had a goodly supply of jam this year!

Apart from the wild strawberry, there is the barren strawberry, a fruit I have to confess I have no knowledge of. The garden strawberries we grew were apparently of a type that was originally raised in France in the 18th century, and they were hybrids between a north American species and a Chilean species. So-called Alpine strawberries are smaller and deliciously flavoured, and they are grown from selected forms of the wild strawberry.

So there we were, admiring wild swans, taking in the autumnal colours, feeling sorry for ourselves because of a lack of jam, and eating small but delicious wild strawberries. A tiny piece of Heaven in the wilds!


Saturday 16th November: Tree Planting in Colin Glen Forest Park, a part of the scheme to make our country one of the more afforested, rather than one of the least afforested, lands. Phone 028 9061 4115, turn up at 1100.

Saturday 23rd November: The Reedy Flats Ramble is at Lough Neagh Discovery Centre at 1.00pm, with Walter Culbert showing the local wild fowl. Details from 028 3832 2205

Monday 25th November: Lisburn RSPB is holding it's monthly meeting at The Friends Meeting House, where Don Scott will intrigue with tales of raptors who fly by day and night. Time is 12.30pm, details from 028 4062 6125

Tuesday 26th November: Fermanagh RSPB will hear Warren Fowler on Birds of the Cape in S Africa, at 1930 in St Macartin's Cathedral Hall, Enniskillen, phone 028 6632 6654

Wednesday 27th November: Butterfly Conservation will hear about Conserving Rare Butterflies, from Nigel Bourn, and all are welcome. Details from 028 9258 4019.

Thursday 28th November: Birdwatch morning at Castle Espie, 11.30, more by phoning 028 9187 4146

Sunday 1st December: Winter Nature Ramble at Castle Espie, 1430, talk to 08 9187 4146

Monday 9th December: Lisburn RSPB is having a Members Night at 7.30pm in The Friends Meeting House.

Ulster Star