Hunkered down just off the verge I feel like part of the fen, a large sod of thick peaty soil, newly turned by the plough to be weathered by a wind that races in off the North Sea. It’s at times like this that the words of Noel Coward spring to mind; ‘very flat, Norfolk’ and little to stop a wind that has its chilly origins many hundreds of miles to the northeast. I am pressed down low to escape the worst of the wind, to keep myself warm and, more importantly, to keep my telescope steady as I scan the distant flock of Whooper Swans feeding in the next field over.
Even though I feel exposed and uncomfortable under these grand skyscapes, I try to come here each winter to seek out the swans that feed on the fields around Welney. For the swans too, this is something of an annual pilgrimage; an autumn migration that draws them here from breeding grounds spread across Iceland. It is the combination of secure roosting sites and nearby feeding opportunities that attracts the swans and as many as 3,500 may be present during the middle of winter.
Many of the birds arrive in small family parties, the youngsters readily distinguishable from their parents. Some of the birds carry rings, invariably fitted on the breeding grounds, with a few individuals additionally marked with special ‘darvic’ rings that can be read at a distance by telescope. Such rings enable researchers (and interested birdwatchers) to collect information on the whereabouts of individual birds without the need to recapture them. Over time, subsequent resightings of an individual can help to build up a detailed picture of its wintering grounds, together with arrival/departure dates for the movements between breeding and non-breeding sites. Records can be submitted to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust who will then send back a spreadsheet detailing the history of the bird(s) you have seen. Among those that I recorded during last winter was an individual first ringed in August 2004 at Bardardalur in Iceland. This particular individual has wintered at or near Welney each winter since. The reports for certain other individuals show a degree of exchange with other sites, including the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Martin Mere in Lancashire and the River Tweed catchment in the borders.
As well as the challenge of reading the rings as the swans feed, there is the delight of noting down a ring number and knowing that it will add to our understanding of these heavyweight waterfowl. There is also the sense of expectation that you might just catch up with an old friend, a swan you have seen in a previous winter.