by Paul Cormacain
ON the main road between Bangor and Belfast there are some very large fields where the road reverts to dual carriageway as you get closer to Bangor.
On the south side of the road, close to the local garden centre, there are fields that appear to be even larger, and it is around this are that you can frequently see whopper swans.
We tend to have three types of swan in this country. The most common, the tamest, and the swan that remains here all year, is the mute swan.
Then there is the Bewick swan, a not so large bird which flies south every year to spend the winter here. The more common Whooper is as large as the mute, and it also flies south each year to sample our hospitality.
West of Derry, and north west of Toome, you can usually manage to see flocks, sometimes large flocks, of whoppers. You may frequently see some of the smaller bewicks with them.
There was an unusual fourth type of swan many years ago, and the thinking was that it had escaped from a collection. It was an Australian swan, black in colour, and it was sighted frequently in Strangford Lough.
I myself saw it there on a few occasions, and often felt that I should go out to Australia to see more of them. My bank manager said "no"!
The whopper and bewick do spend some time in north Down. Without actually following them for weeks at a time, I would suspect that they move around some of the large fields and graze there.
On Strangford Lough you will. regularly see flocks of different types of swans, and I should not be surprised if the north Down birds did regularly go to the Lough. Perhaps another black Australian swan will escape from a collection and join them some day.
The whopper is a very attractive looking bird, snow white all over in adult plumage. They used to be considered smaller birds than the mutes, but enough research has been done for us to know that the whopper and mute are more or less the same size.
So both types are white, both types are the same size, so what is the difference in appearance if we spot these birds in the wild?
The main difference, and the thing to examine, is the bill.
The whopper has black on the end of his bill, and the basal area is lemon yellow. The mute has a knob on its bill, just at the forehead, a knob which is missing from the whopper.
The colouring of the bill is also different, orange in colour, changing at the knob to black. You may also notice that the legs and feet of the mute are slate in colour, those of the whopper are black.
To distinguish between the whopper and the mute, most of us just look at the bill, and it the end of it is black we are looking at a whopper. If the end of the bill is orange, we are looking at a mute. Bewicks are smaller. Simple?
The whoppers in north Down are very wary birds. They will not let you get close to them, and at any given time some birds will be grazing and others will be on guard. I could never work out the group organisation of these birds, but many other birds seem to have a similar system. Consider a flock of lapwings in winter, and you will see similarities in guard practice.
The whopper were obviously in family groups, parents with up to five or six young in each group.
This would represent a full family with no fatalities so far, which is quite an achievement for wild life. There are so many things which can happen to make the family group smaller.
Some individual birds were in the flock, and I suspect that these birds were immature, although they looked like adults. Perhaps in the spring they will get the urge and ability to start a family, and will be single no more.
Keep an eye open for swans the next time you are in the country. Don't bother about the black Australian birds, but see if you can identify our local and migrating birds.
Thursday 3rd February - Alternative energy sources in the Belfast Hills, at 7.30, location the Farmers' Inn on the Colinglen Road. Could be fascinating, details from 9060 3466.
Saturday 5th February - Community Tree Planting Event at Colin Glen Trust, loam, more information from 9061 4115
World Wetlands Day at Lagan Meadows, starting 11am, guided tours and more, phone Wildlife Trust on 4483 0282.
Sunday 13th February - Oxford Island is organising a leisurely stroll in Lough Neagh Wetlands, at 2.30, call. 38322205.
Thursday 17th February - At 7.30, Beyond Black Mountain, in Linen Hall Library, with Belfast Hills Partnership, call 9060 3466
Sunday 20th February - National Trust is organising a meal andguided walk, sounds fascinating, but check with them on 9751 0721
Monday, 28th February-Lisburn RSPB has Anthony McGeehan and Sea Bird Detective Stories in Friends Meeting House, contact David McCreedy on 4062 6125