2 November 2015
This morning I was looking through some of the posts I’d missed on the Southampton Heritage Facebook page and could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a picture of the black swans on the Itchen with five little cygnets. This is more unusual than you might think. The black swan, Cygnus atratus, is actually a native of Australia and New Zealand, not England. The first black swan arrived in 1791 as an ornamental bird and they became quite popular in zoological gardens and private bird collections. Over time a few escaped and wild birds, like the ones on the Itchen, all have their origins in captivity. With so few in the wild, breeding pairs have always been a rarity and until 2005 just twenty pairs were reported to be breeding throughout the whole of the UK. At the last count, in 2011, this number had risen to twenty eight.
The pictures were taken on 12 October, when I was in North America so I knew I wasn’t likely to see fluffy little cygnets like those in the photo but obviously I wanted to go down to the river to see what I could see. Besides, a walk along the river is never a bad thing and the sun was shining. In fact I’d hardly got to the top of the path before I was fishing my phone out of my pocket to take pictures of the dew on the cotinus in my front garden and the fairy webs on the hedge, the dew drops all turning to tiny rainbows. If this was what November was going to be like I was going to get some great walks in.
Over the years I’ve seen the black swans either singly or together in a group of two or three from Chessel Bay to Riverside Park but, as the photos were taken at Riverside, I thought this would be my starting point. my phone went back into my pocket and I hurried along to the park as quickly as my legs would carry me. At the bottom of the slope I looked around eagerly but, disappointingly, there were no black swans in sight. Just in case, I peered through the arches of the bridge but they weren’t hiding there.
The most likely place to see black swans was near the jetty where all the waterbirds gather because people are apt to throw bread at them. From where I was standing I couldn’t actually see any black swans but there was a melee of gulls and swans and I could see someone on the platform with a carrier bag throwing something into the water. On I hurried, but all in vain as the only swans there were white. A little further on there was an unusal sight but it wasn’t at all bird related. A policeman was chatting to some people on the path. For a moment I wondered if something had happened in the park because I’ve never seen a policeman there before. He looked fairly relaxed and happy as I passed though so maybe he just fancied a nice walk.
By this time I was getting a sinking feeling that it was going to be my hunt for mute swan cygnets all over again, with everyone telling me they were there and me totally failing to find any. Even so, I didn’t give up hope. It was just possible they were hanging out further up the river. There were gulls gathered by the reedbeds but no swans at all and I got slightly distracted by bright red leaves on a tree. At least the hunt for autumn colour was proving fruitful which was better than nothing.
Heading behind the reedbeds to check that stretch of river as far as I could see it the trail was a carpet of yellow and leaves fell on me like snowflakes as I walked. Each tree seemed to be standing in a puddle of gold. Sadly autumn leaves were all I saw. There wasn’t a swan in sight. Even the jelly ear fungi I’ve found there so many times were absent. The leaves were nice though so I wasn’t exactly complaining.
As I walked I peeked through the bare branches where I could but there were no waterbirds at all. Back out on the main path a workman was using a leaf blower to clear the leaves. It seemed a thankless task as the leaves were falling on him as he worked and I thought about the clever sit on leaf blowers I’d seen in Toronto. Obviously Southampton council budgets don’t run to gadgets like that.
The golden carpet continued all the he way to Woodmill and my last real hope of seeing black swans on this part of the river. In all the years I’ve been watching them I’ve never seen them beyond the mill. Apart from the gulls on the roof and a scattering near the bend, Woodmill was a bird free zone. Still, I figured I’d come this far I might as well do a thorough job and check all the way to the White Swan.
The area just across the road from the mill is usually teaming with ducks and geese because it’s another favourite place for people to throw food. Once I’d got across the road though I was surprised to see it completely empty. Maybe someone was kidknapping all the birds and fattening them up for Christmas? As compensation there were some wonderful reflections of the colourful trees in the river so all was not lost.
At the next bend there were swans but they were boring white ones. Around the bend though, the wonderful display of red and copper from the row of maples lining the bank totally made up for my fruitless search. Year after year these trees provide the best autumn display in the whole city. At least that’s my opinion. Scampering up the bank I took lots of photos. In a week or two the leaves will have fallen so it was catch it while you can.
As I approached Mansbridge I could see something in the water under the arch of the bridge. My hopes were raised briefly but on closer inspection it was actually ducks. At this point I was a little undecided what to do next. It was unlikely the black swans were this far up the river but if I turned back without checking I’d never be sure I hadn’t missed them. In the end I decided to walk back to Woodmill via Monks Brook, just to satisfy my curiosity.
In truth, the only creatures I’ve ever seen at Monks Brook are cats and, once, a deer but I had half a mind to cross the bridge and come at the river from the other side along Saltmead and Priory Road even though there are only a few places you can get at it there. As expected, the only thing of interest I saw was Himalayan Balsam. Last year the waterside was filled with it but this summer I’d not seen any so it was a surprise to see one or two plants. Given their invasive nature I was tempted to pick them all to stop them spreading but, in the end, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
On the other side of the green bridge the narrow path was made pretty by fallen leaves and I stopped for a moment in St Mary’s Churchyard to admire the view. In the end I decided against my detour along the other side of the river. If the black swans were there I’d have seen them from the opposite bank so it made more sense to go back through the mill and retrace my steps to Cobden Bridge.
The morning mist was still clinging to the edges of the park when I got back and a few dog walkers were wandering about, their charges nuzzling through the fallen leaves. A breeze had picked up and leaves showered me as I headed back towards the riverbank. Of course the swans hadn’t miraculously appeared when I got there so I marched quickly back to Cobden Bridge.
My last hope of seeing the black swans lay between the bridge and Chessel Bay. In fact I’d seen them more often along this part of the river than anywhere else so all hope wasn’t lost. As I crossed the bridge I peered hopefully over the side but all I saw were the little boats that are always moored there. The wind had brought clouds scudding in hiding the sun and the blue sky that had been with me all morning. How quickly the weather changes in November.
The slipway was a disappointment. No swans and no sun, just dull grey skies and choppy water. On Horseshoe Bridge there were at least bright berries and a few leaves to look at. In fact the maple saplings that try to hard to cling on along the railway fence, despite being chopped back on a regular basis, seemed like works of art, each leaf trying to out compete its neighbour as the brightest. The little red boat, Dutch Courage, was moored in the usual place and I could see swans down by the big stones. Perhaps the black swans were amongst them?
When I reached the stones there were just mute swans, gulls and ducks. The swans looked at me as if to say, ‘where have you been?’ It’s been a while since I walked this way after all and once it was a twice daily trip. Peeking through the wire fence into the old TV studios I could see that work is finally underway. The big diggers seem to be clearing the site of rubble, or at least moving it into big piles. Whatever they build there will have some lovely riverside views.
By the time I’d climbed up onto Northam Bridge it was beginning to drizzle. There were no swans, white or black, on the river by the bridge. My final hope was Chessel Bay. All along the river path I had my fingers crossed that the black swans and their cygnets would be hiding out there on the last piece of natural shoreline on the Itchen. My hopes were dashed when I came to the viewing platform. There was nothing, not even a duck and the rain was getting harder. It was time to go home.
It seems to me that the Itchen cygnets have been very illusive this year. Quite where they have all been hiding when I’ve been out looking for them is a mystery but, just in case you thought the black swan cygnets were a figment of my imagination, I contacted Jackie Reed, who posted the photos on Facebook. She very kindly said I could copy one of her photos as proof that they really are there, even though I haven’t actually managed to see them. Meanwhile, the black swan hunt continues…