1. Reminder: Please use our affiliate links for holiday shopping!

Swan Attack!! Is Your Gear Peck-Resistant?

Discussion in 'Nature' started by alex g, Jul 26, 2016.

  1. alex g

    alex g Mu-43 Top Veteran

    542
    Mar 30, 2016
    New York / Bath
    27923263594_de50d11173_o. Mean Swan 5 by Alex G, on Flickr

    While I can't pretend to compete with the 'gator whisperers among us when it comes to grit and fearlessness, I can claim to have been the recent recipient of a wanton and savage pecking. Okay, it wasn't that savage, but the story might make you chuckle...

    Whenever I'm in the city of Bath, I try to get out on the river Avon as often as I can. There is a lovely, two-mile stretch of the river bounded by two weirs, this one at the upper end...

    28508238856_ca463eb3e9_o. Bathampton Weir by Alex G, on Flickr

    ... and this one at the lower end...

    28508238646_41a9fa3142_o. Gull and Pulteney Weir by Alex G, on Flickr

    The presence of the two weirs seems to have the effect of keeping the resident waterfowl reasonably contained while they have as yet flightless young, which makes it easier to monitor their progress.

    Since the mid 1800s there has been a boating station on this part of the river, renting out traditional skiffs and punts. Most of the present fleet of beautiful, clinker-built boats date from the early 1900s. They were designed by the Edwardians for elegant, leisurely afternoons on the river but I find they double as handy mobile camera platforms!

    Back at the beginning of June, the single resident pair of swans had these six cheerful little guys in tow:

    28434274772_511cb4bf05_o. Six Cygnets by Alex G, on Flickr

    At the same time, a resident pair of mallards had no less than seventeen ducklings scurrying around them:

    27389318831_2c14f49ffc_o. Run! by Alex G, on Flickr

    Two weeks later, the swans were down to four cygnets, having probably lost two to a fox, dog, pike, rival male swan or even their own father — the cob will sometimes cull weaklings rather than allow it to jeopardise the safety of the brood.

    28462391761_c03ea0ab75_o. Swan Family and Skiff by Alex G, on Flickr

    Similarly, the mallard family had been reduced by eight - life's tough if you're a duckling.

    I had a few hours free one afternoon at the end of June and decided to grab a couple of bread rolls and a chunk of cheese from the supermarket and eat a late lunch on the river while observing the swans, provided I could find them. I took along a recently acquired vintage Vivitar Series One 70-210mm f2.8-4.0 which I wanted to compare against the 40-150 pro + MC-14 combo to see how a respected example of 80s tech measured up against a present-day equivalent.

    After rowing practically the entire length of the stretch of river without seeing a single bird, I finally spotted one of the adult swans sitting on a little strip of shingle next to the upper weir, together with the cygnets of which there were now just two. All three birds were facing resolutely away from the river, so I slid the boat into some reeds and took up my position in the hope that they would make a move at some point.

    Looks like the parent was having a bad plumage day in this one:
    E-M5 mk II + Vivitar 70-210mm Komine

    28434274162_aaa9ac93be_o. Aloof swan and two cygnets by Alex G, on Flickr

    After ten minutes or so of inactivity, I decided to eat lunch and unwrapped my bread and cheese. I'm now of the opinion that Mallard have an extremely highly-developed bread-detection faculty, because literally within seconds I became aware of rapidly approaching quacks and peeping noises filtering through the bank of reeds. When presently the family hove into view, I was horrified to discover that of the original seventeen ducklings, only two remained.

    As a rule, I'm not a duck-feeding guy, but under the circumstances my heart bled for the poor creatures as they motored back and forth courageously beside the boat, beaming at me with friendly enthusiasm and peeping piteously, so I figured it wouldn't hurt to give them sunflower seeds picked off the crusts of my bread. In hindsight this may have been a tactical error on my part.

    28462391071_1de27b503d_o. Painterly Mallard by Alex G, on Flickr

    28508222336_d0a76c90be_o. Duckling by Alex G, on Flickr

    Now, while the swans evidently didn't share the bread-detection ability of the ducks, it nonetheless wasn't long before the adult got wise to the fact that fifty yards away some pesky ducks had jumped their place in the pecking order. I don't know if the adult was the cob (male) or the pen, but on the basis of behaviour and for the sake of grammatical simplicity I shall assume, possibly erroneously, that it was the pen. Rising purposefully to her feet she gave me a penetrating stare across the river and launched herself in my direction...

    28434273312_edb943d46d_o. I want a word with you by Alex G, on Flickr

    ... while the cygnets performed what appeared to be some kind of war dance in the background:

    28462390231_dfd17e1001_o. Cygnets' War Dance by Alex G, on Flickr

    As soon as they were within striking distance, the swans wasted no time in subjecting the ducks to a fury of outraged pecking - by now the cygnets had already grown sufficiently big and confident to take on even the adult mallard.

    28434272222_6aae292f8a_o. Two cygnets by Alex G, on Flickr

    Undeterred, and displaying commendable tactical astuteness, the mallards scurried smartly round the stern to the other side of the boat and took up an opposing position on my port beam.

    By now, of course, with the birds so close, the tele-zooms I'd intended to compare were way too long. The only other lens I had with me was a Sigma 30mm f1.4, so I hastily substituted it for the Vivitar.

    28462389831_c990213670_o. Two Ducklings by Alex G, on Flickr

    Meanwhile, the cygnets had also started cheeping piteously for food and their mother was treading water vigorously, rising up almost out of the water. I used to think that this was a sign of aggression, but later learned that the purpose of this "foot-trampling" is more typically to dislodge vegetation and insects from the river bed so that they float up to the surface where they can be scooped up by the cygnets. Sometimes it can be an associative response to the prospect of food from an external source (such as some bread-toting idiot in a boat), as a signal to their cygnets to quit mucking about and pay attention to the waiter. Sort of like chanting "Food! Food! Food! Food!"...

    28540398295_f6dd48c65b_o. Foot-trampling swan by Alex G, on Flickr

    I now had the swans on my left, the ducks on my right, a camera in one hand, my lunch balanced on my knees and — oh, did I mention I was holding an umbrella? It had been drizzling intermittently and neither the Vivitar nor the Sigma are weatherproof.

    Being British, and thus both a champion of the underdog and a dogmatist of table-manners, I was beginning to find the conduct of the swans — particularly the adult, who was surely old enough to know better — less appealing than that of the ducks, which, though undeniably vocal, clearly knew where to draw the line in such social situations, and furthermore had been forced to flee from the aggression of the swans. Consequently the next handful of seeds went to the ducks' side of the boat.

    Instantly their was a commotion to my left as the swans, simultaneously furious at my brazen treachery and hungry for a snack, and making a perfunctory and wholly unconvincing attempt at maintaining their official dignity, hastily propelled themselves round the stern of the boat to the other side, rather like schoolkids trying to look like they're only walking when they've been told not to run. This is turn precipitated a smaller but equally strenuous flurry of activity as the ducks abandoned their position and fled forward, disappearing into the reedbank and wriggling around the bow, before popping out again shortly afterwards back on the starboard side, having now made a complete circumnavigation of the boat.

    Turning to take some shots of the plucky ducklings, I heard a long and meaningful hiss behind me. Looking round I was met by an equally meaningful glare. I'm not sure if it's physically possible for a swan to wear a mean expression on its face, but one way or another the message was conveyed with an impressive lack of ambiguity. This is my river, you ignorant ape, and it's time to drop the ducks and talk sunflower seeds.

    27923263634_47d7820b7e_o. Swan close 3 by Alex G, on Flickr

    Continued...
     

    Attached Files:

    Last edited: Jul 26, 2016
    • Like Like x 7
    • Winner Winner x 4
    • Funny Funny x 3
    • Appreciate Appreciate x 1
  2. alex g

    alex g Mu-43 Top Veteran

    542
    Mar 30, 2016
    New York / Bath
    Continued from previous post...

    They say one shouldn't give in to bullies, so I turned back to the ducklings again to fire off a few more frames as they glided up and down like tiny fluffy carpet slippers. This time there was no hissing behind me — instead, there was a brief noise of churning water, immediately after which my shoulder and upper arm was subjected to a rapid burst of determined pecks, which I have to admit came as a bit of a surprise. Swans are well known for defending their nests and young when threatened, and their territory against other swans, but I'd not previously encountered aggression from an adult that had voluntarily brought its young along with it with a view to scavenging food.

    Well, I'm sure she had her reasons, so I decided to take the hint and make myself scarce, but not before trying to get a close up or two — she was after all very close. She looked first at me and then the camera — which I was holding a foot or so away from my face for safety's sake — and evidently decided that the villain of the piece was the camera and proceeded to let off another burst of pecks, this time aimed at the lens hood. Needless to say, I kept shooting and some of the results follow. Unfortunately, the Sigma won't focus closer than 0.3m, so the moments of actual contact are very blurry, but you can still tell that you're looking down a swan's throat, which I find quite entertaining:

    28462388871_d07269238c_o. Swan close 1 by Alex G, on Flickr

    27924604683_16c8b41671_o. Pecking Swan 1 by Alex G, on Flickr

    28540399105_fa864e0e55_o. Pecking Swan 2 by Alex G, on Flickr

    27924605953_e6f1db2bfe_o. swan close 2 by Alex G, on Flickr

    28508221336_287433ea7f_o. Pecking Swan 3 by Alex G, on Flickr

    27924604503_24264941db_o. Boba Fett Swan by Alex G, on Flickr

    At this point, accepting defeat, I stowed the camera and the umbrella which I'd previously thrown aside, unshipped the oars and made as dignified a departure as I could under the circumstances, given that I was rowing backwards out of a reedbank pursued by an angry and determined swan which, with both my hands fully occupied with the oars, I was attempting to repel by means of hissing at it menacingly. I don't think that anyone witnessed the spectacle, but if they did, I hope they got a chuckle out of it.

    As I left the swans behind and started rowing back downstream, I was unexpectedly joined by the mallard family who greatly helped restore my self-respect by graciously providing me with an official escort, complete with twin duckling outpaddlers, as far as the first bend in the river. There, with a final peep, they appeared to find closure and, accepting the fact that as far as sunflower seeds were concerned I was a depleted resource, turned tail stoically and paddled back upstream.

    Please excuse the technical shortcomings of this final pic - I put it down to a combination of heightened levels of exertion and emotion...
    27941782423_be3f4be33b_o. Mallard official escort by Alex G, on Flickr

    Thanks for making it to the end — I hope it was worth it!
     

    Attached Files:

    Last edited: Jul 27, 2016
    • Funny Funny x 14
    • Like Like x 11
    • Winner Winner x 6
  3. dogs100

    dogs100 Mu-43 Top Veteran

    965
    Nov 12, 2011
    N Devon UK
    Geoff
    Very funny ... loved it.
     
    • Agree Agree x 1
    • Appreciate Appreciate x 1
  4. robcee

    robcee Mu-43 Veteran

    289
    Jan 10, 2016
    Toronto
    Rob Campbell
    that's hilarious. Great story and loved the shots of the cygnets.

    be careful around swans and their brood! They can be seriously aggressive. Geese too, if you're in Canada.
     
    • Agree Agree x 1
    • Appreciate Appreciate x 1
  5. alex g

    alex g Mu-43 Top Veteran

    542
    Mar 30, 2016
    New York / Bath
    Thanks! Glad to hear it worked as intended! :)

    Wait — geese are only aggressive when they're in Canada?

    Just kidding. Joking aside, swans are certainly large birds with even larger attitudes and are definitely worth giving the benefit of the doubt. In this case, I felt reasonably secure in the boat, since I thought it unlikely that the swan would actually climb aboard, and there was sufficient freeboard to have made it relatively tricky for her to get a good swipe at me with her wings from the water. Also, I've observed her on a previous occasion pecking at the shoes of one of the riverside residents while he was standing on his landing stage, in a manner more suggestive of insistent scavenging than of serious aggression, so I thought it unlikely that the encounter would get out of hand.

    The moral of the story, however, would appear to be: DON'T FEED THE BIRDS!
    :hiding:
     
  6. robcee

    robcee Mu-43 Veteran

    289
    Jan 10, 2016
    Toronto
    Rob Campbell
    yes! And always carry an umbrella.
     
    • Like Like x 1
  7. alex g

    alex g Mu-43 Top Veteran

    542
    Mar 30, 2016
    New York / Bath
    Trouble is, an umbrella could be interpreted as a sign of fear... perhaps one should always carry a concealed umbrella? :)
     
    • Like Like x 1
    • Funny Funny x 1
  8. Carbonman

    Carbonman Mu-43 All-Pro

    Jul 10, 2014
    Vancouver BC
    Graham
    Or your towel... (HHGTTG)
     
    • Funny Funny x 3
  9. JamesD

    JamesD Mu-43 Regular

    58
    Mar 18, 2015
    Elk Grove, CA
    Jim Landers
    Wonderful photos, even better story.
     
    • Appreciate Appreciate x 1
  10. alex g

    alex g Mu-43 Top Veteran

    542
    Mar 30, 2016
    New York / Bath
    Thanks very much, James, I'm glad you enjoyed them!
     
  11. drd1135

    drd1135 Zen Snapshooter

    Mar 17, 2011
    Southwest Virginia
    Steve
    Dang. That's like the feathered version of Jaws. :eek:
     
    • Funny Funny x 1
  12. JamesD

    JamesD Mu-43 Regular

    58
    Mar 18, 2015
    Elk Grove, CA
    Jim Landers
    Has the makings of a Monty Python bit for sure.
     
    • Agree Agree x 1
  13. alex g

    alex g Mu-43 Top Veteran

    542
    Mar 30, 2016
    New York / Bath
    UPDATE! I was able to go out on the river again yesterday to check up on the progress of the swan and mallard families. I'm happy to report that there have been no further infant mortalities!

    The two ducklings now have most of their flight feathers, though they're still a little downy under the wings. This one seemed very proud of them and was eager to demonstrate its new plumage:

    E-M5 mk II + Sigma 30 f/1.4
    28167295453_ff64d2e597_o. Duckling shows flight feathers 1 by Alex G, on Flickr

    28164607664_9820f6284a_o. Duckling shows flight feathers 2 by Alex G, on Flickr

    28167294793_3712f69d6e_o. Duckling shows flight feathers 3 by Alex G, on Flickr

    28704928531_0b934907da_o. Mallard duckling pre-flight 4 by Alex G, on Flickr

    Meanwhile the mother was looking justifiably pleased with herself:

    28165244404_e07aeacef0_o. Mallard by Alex G, on Flickr

    28704931811_b20e1a3304_o. Mallard by Alex G, on Flickr

    The cygnets, too, have undergone significant changes — they're past that 'difficult' stage and are beginning to look unquestionably like swans:

    E-M5 mk II + 40-150 pro + MC-14
    28704930511_a5cfef6f84_o. Cygnet with first signs of flight feathers by Alex G, on Flickr

    28167294333_ce67f376e7_o. Cygnets in front of weir 1 by Alex G, on Flickr

    28164607134_354ac525f1_o. Cygnet in front of weir by Alex G, on Flickr

    Sadly, although none of the young have perished since my previous report, I was informed that the cob swan died a few weeks back — he was old and had been lame for a couple of years, so it was probably just his time. I wouldln't be surprised if his illness contributed to the pen's grumpiness the last time I saw her.
     
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2016
    • Like Like x 3
  14. JamesD

    JamesD Mu-43 Regular

    58
    Mar 18, 2015
    Elk Grove, CA
    Jim Landers
    Ahh nature. She's wise but cruel. In considering the demise of those 15 cute little bits of fluff, I had to chuckle at the thought of what this planet would be like if nature didn't "cull the herd" on a regular basis. Can you imagine if every mating pair of Mallards had 17 chicks survive to maturity every year? Certainly, in short order the planet would be thrown out of orbit by the sheer "mass of Mallards".
     
    • Funny Funny x 1
  15. alex g

    alex g Mu-43 Top Veteran

    542
    Mar 30, 2016
    New York / Bath
    Hahaha undeniably — we'd need to be eating a lot of duck on a regular basis! But think of the pillows!
     
    • Funny Funny x 1
  16. JamesD

    JamesD Mu-43 Regular

    58
    Mar 18, 2015
    Elk Grove, CA
    Jim Landers
    indeed. The silver lining