6 February 2018
Usually I avoid watching the news. In my opinion there is enough unavoidable doom and gloom about without going looking for it. Last night though, I accidentally ended up watching the end of the national news and what I saw was rather worrying. Apparently a suspected outbreak of bird flu has killed several of the swans on the River Thames near Windsor. Of course, this left me worrying about the swans on the Itchen so today I thought I’d go and check out all was well on the river.
Quite what we expected to find I couldn’t say but, as CJ and I strolled down Gaters Hill, full of coffee from the Swan Garden Centre, we were hoping whatever it was didn’t include dead swans. When there were no swans at all along the river by the White Swan and none near Mansbridge bridge, I wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or worried. The lack of dead birds was obviously a good sign but I’d have preferred to see some healthy swans to set my mind at rest.
There were a few mallards swimming about near the bridge and the odd gull perched on the leafless tree branches. They seemed to be enjoying the blue sky and wintery sunshine. As far as I could tell they looked healthy enough, although I’m not entirely sure what a bird with bird flu looks like.
The Itchen meanders its way through Riverside Park in a series of wriggles and sharp bends so you can never see too far ahead at any one time. The section nearest the bridge may have been devoid of swans but, around the first curve, CJ spotted two in the distance. At this point they were not much more than large white blobs on the water so it was hard to tell if they were healthy or not. The fact they were swimming downstream at speed suggested they probably were though.
While I hurried on, trying to catch up with the swans, CJ got slightly distracted by a plane coming in to land. The airport runway is less than half a mile from the bridge at Mansbridge so the planes fly low over the park. Sometimes it seems as if they barely clear the tops of the trees. Luckily, accidents are rare. In fact there have been just two major incidents. In 1990 one of the windows in the cabin of a British Airways flight blew out, sucking captain Tim Lancaster halfway out of the cockpit. The plane was forced to make un unscheduled landing at Southampton. Thankfully the captain survived. In 1993 a Cessna overran the runway and crashed onto the M27 motorway just beyond the perimeter fence. The plane hit two cars and burst into flames. By some miracle no one suffered any major injuries.
This plane disappeared safely behind the trees and we carried on along the river. We passed two noisy and healthy looking coots and slowly gained on the swans. When we finally caught up with them at the sharp river bend they seemed to be in good health. The gulls perching on the dead tree showed no signs of ill health either.
From the river bend to the mill we danced with the two swans, overtaking them and being overtaken in turns. Woodmill marks the far end of the freshwater stretch of the Itchen. Beyond the sluice gates the river is tidal and salty. Right down by the sluice, where the river runs under the road, we saw another pair of swans. We’d almost reached them when a terrific splashing and womping of wings alerted us to the fact one of the two swans we’d followed downstream was about to take flight.
A flying swan is a fairly unusual sight. For birds who seem so graceful and calm on the water, they make a meal of getting into the air. With much splishing and splashing and a great deal of noise, this swan finally left the river and took to the sky. When I say sky, I mean a foot or two above the water. The flight, if that is what you could call it, ended with a splash landing a few hundred yards upstream.
The flight seemed a short and rather pointless consumption of energy as swimming back upstream would certainly have been much easier. I’m fairly sure the flying swan was a cob so perhaps he was just showing off to impress his pen. If that was the case I think he failed. The pen seemed distinctly bored by the whole thing and barely even glanced his way.
The water here was teeming with birds, along with the swans we saw a flotilla of gulls, a handful of ducks and two unexpected greylags. In spring and summer the area behind Woodmill is often home to a large group of greylag geese. Usually they disappear in autumn, flying south to overwinter in warmer climes. Whether these two forgot to migrate this year, or whether they have arrived back a little early for spring mating is a mystery but we were surprised to see them. They were less happy to see us when they realised we didn’t have any food for them.
After a quick stop to apologise to the honking greylags, we started towards the road again. We’d almost made it when the second pair of swans took flight. A swan taking off is a curious sight. They seem to run across the top of the water, flapping their huge wings madly and creating a terrific splashing and a lot of noise. To see two at once so shortly after witnessing a solo flight was a rare treat. Why the swans were so restless today is a mystery. Hopefully it’s a sign they’re getting ready to mate rather than of anything more sinister.
Once the second swans had crash landed a little way upstream we crossed the road. All in all, what we’d seen on the freshwater part of the river had set our minds at rest. There had been no dead birds and all the birds we’d seen seemed in good health. Of course, seeing a handful of healthy birds didn’t mean there weren’t any with bird flu on the river. It was now time to check out the birds living on the saltwater.
The water in front of Woodmill was teaming with birds. Most were gulls but a couple of swans were swimming near the far bank. None were close enough to get a good look at but nothing gave us cause for alarm.
Trees line the riverbank here and, even in winter when they’re leafless, there’s not much chance to see the river. One willow had something very curious hanging on its trunk. At first I thought I might be a floral memorial but, as we got closer, it turned out to be a rather lovely wreath of berries and what I’d thought was a card attached to it was actually a price tag. How it got there and why are a complete mystery.
We decided to brave the mud and walk behind the reed beds to see if there were any birds in the river there. We found a few swans, some gulls and a very friendly dog. It took me some time to drag CJ away from the latter.
When we finally got going again there were more gulls on the edge of the mud on the other side of the reeds and two more swans. We also found a beautiful drift of yellow crocuses beneath the trees. Hopefully this is a sign that spring is just around the corner.
We’d now rounded the final bend before Cobden Bridge. In front of us was the jetty. There were less swans and gulls than usual. Most of the mute swans were young ones with their brown feathers still showing so I’m hoping the adults are all off building nests somewhere. As for the black swans, it’s hard to tell if they were young ones or adults but either way it was good to see them looking strong.
As we made for the bridge the blue sky we’d enjoyed all morning looked as if it was beginning to cloud over. It seemed as if we’d seen all the swans we were going to see and it definitely felt like time to head for home before the rain came.
As usual CJ was dawdling, walking a little behind me. I’d started to walk up the slope towards the road when he called out. When I turned I saw two more swans poking their heads over the river wall. It looked for all the world as if they were playing hide and seek with us.
There was one more surprise as we walked up the slope towards the Triangle. A clump of daffodils with two bulging buds gave me more hope that spring is on the way.
Our morning walk along the river had set our minds at rest about the birds on the Itchen. We’d seen no sign of sickness in any of the birds we’d seen. Of course this doesn’t mean there isn’t any but it’s the best result we could hope for. Now I can stop worrying about the swans on the Itchen and start worrying about Commando running fifty miles on Friday…
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