It’s not especially uncommon for me to be wrong, and this week has been no exception. I recently had a whinge about the local mute swans being difficult to photograph because of their propensity to position themselves in bright sunshine on dark ponds. However, they have been my photographic saviours of late because it has been damp and murky and anything even vaguely bright has been a beautiful gift to my camera. So the mute swans have had my vote almost every day this week (except for Thursday, when the sun made an appearance and my friends the damselflies were out and about). My easiest, and therefore favourite, option for visiting white swans is Southampton Common.
There are three ponds on Southampton Common, and two swan couples. Occasionally other swans try to move in, but they are seen off within a day or so, as were a couple of Canada Geese who made the error of dropping by last year. They were summarily dismissed, with no suggestion that a return visit would be advisable. One swan couple live on the Cemetery Lake, and stay there. The other pair live on the Ornamental Pond but move to the Boating Lake when their cygnets hatch. They do, however, own the Boating Lake all year, even when it is drained over the winter period. Last year Mr Swan became particularly grumpy with his teenage cygnets and spent a whole day sitting in the mud of the drained Boating Lake, just avoiding his family.
The arrival of cygnets is a big event in the lives of the regulars on The Common. From about January onwards, in between discussing the weather (because we live in England, so we are obliged to do this) we talk about whether the swans will have babies this year. From late March to early May we greet each other with statements such as: “Are they building a nest?” “How many do you think they will have” and (repeated every year) “I’m sure they had hatched by this time last year.” This year I left for a trip to South America when the swans on the Ornamental Lake were building their nest: thankfully, the cygnets waited until I was home to make their appearance. Once the babies are hatched, there are endless head counts to ensure that no-one is missing, and if the Swan Watch Fraternity see each other in the street, instead of greeting each other with a cheery: “Cold, isn’t it?” or “It might brighten up later” we say: “Still five” or “Have you seen them today?” The cygnets also provide me with endless opportunities to risk camera and dignity whilst getting bad shots of retreating fluff.
In the opposite direction, but still quite close to our home, there is a boardwalk that runs between the River Itchen and the railway line. This part of the river is a meeting point for swans, largely because the people who work on the nearby industrial estate feed them at lunchtime. By a stroke of luck it is also along the route from where we live to the parcels collection depot. We are never at home when outsize letters or parcels arrive, and going to collect them is an unpopular task, as it involves lengthy queues, sometimes with no idea of what you are queuing for. I once queued for 15 minutes to get an oversized unrequested brochure from a company I that didn’t want to buy anything from. It had £2.50 excess postage to pay. I had to pay before finding out what the post was, which enraged me slightly. In such circumstances, having the swans to stop and chat to on the journey home is a great blessing. Although possibly not for them.
A bit further away from our house, but still on the River Itchen, is Riverside Park, where I meet the black swans from time to time. There are a lot of mute swans at Riverside Park too, but they have migrated a little way upstream this year, to a location known as The Woodmill, because two of their number have cygnets and are no longer into sharing the pontoon area where they traditionally congregated. The black swans are made of sterner stuff than the mute swans, and have stayed near the pontoon anyway, ignoring or dealing sternly with any bad behaviour.
I called by Riverside Park yesterday, just to see how things were, and because there is a café nearby that sells rather nice ice cream. When I arrived everyone was calm and quiet, grooming and dozing. I soon had to take cover though, because two low flying swans came round the corner at speed. It turned out that they were the matriarch and patriarch of this section of the river, who immediately set about bossing all the others around, making clear who could do what, when, and how. Having established the rules they sidled off for a bit of quality time together.
I could have stayed for a long time, watching them all, but I had work to do and ice cream to eat. And it looks like the autumn weather is here to stay, so I will have plenty of time to enjoy the photographic opportunities that the mute swans offer.