WHEN Valentine’s Day is celebrated across the country, it is not only us humans who are looking to get a date – the same thing is happening in the animal world.

As the days are becoming longer and warmer, most birds start looking for mates, using their attractive displays or ravishing songs.

There is nothing more romantic than a picture of mute swans with their necks entwined in a heart shape. With their pure white plumage and reputation for monogamous relationships, mute swans became a symbol of love in many cultures.

Although swans generally bond for life, divorces can happen. Swans may also re-mate if their partner dies. In these instances, the bird goes through a period of mourning before they start looking for a new mate.

East Lothian Courier: A mute swan. Image: Zaneta ThrelfallA mute swan. Image: Zaneta Threlfall

Despite their name, mute swans are not completely silent. Although they are the least noisy out of all swan species, they do have a repertoire of calls, sounds, grunts and hisses. You can hear them, especially during the breeding period, when they become extremely loud as they protect their territory or youngsters. I cannot tell you have many times I have been hissed or honked at by a swan on the Esk!

The mute swan is one of Britain’s most iconic waterbirds. Swans have a long, curved neck, pure white body and orange beak that has a basal knob. These characteristics and the way they gracefully glide on the water make them unmistakable. The male and female are almost identical but the male is slightly larger. The best way to tell them apart is during the breeding season, when the male’s basal knob swells up and becomes noticeably larger. The juvenile is greyish with a pink beak for the first winter, but they gain an adult look by the second winter.

Mute swans primarily feed on aquatic plants, especially waterweed, small fish and frogs, which they catch by reaching below the water surface with their long necks. If you would like to support their diet, particularly throughout the winter months, it is a good idea to feed them grains like wheat or porridge oats, as well as fresh vegetables like lettuce, corn or even chopped cabbage! Just make sure there is no mould on the food, as it is highly poisonous to them.

Although swans start bonding from the age of two, breeding does not happen before they fully mature at the age of four years. Their nest is huge and made of plants and twigs. The inside of the nest is laid with the female’s feathers, which she plucks from her underside. The bare spot around the female’s wing is called a brood patch.

Mute swans lay up to 12 eggs, which are then incubated by the female. The newly hatched cygnets remain in the nest for a further 24 hours before they enter the water (under strong supervision from their parents!) for the first time. I am sure you are familiar with the adorable view of a mummy swan carrying her cygnets on the back whilst daddy patrols the area and chases off any intruder. Males often arch their wings and rest their neck on the back as a display of power which puts off any trespasser.

February is a good time for me to get ready for swan photography. Each season, I always try to capture these birds in a variety of forms: from head portraits, through to misty shots, to aggressive fights and cygnet photography. What I have not succeeded in yet is achieving the perfect shot of a pair of swans entwined in a heart shape. I have seen it multiple times but I never had my camera with me. This year’s objective is to finally capture this romantic moment, but also to experiment with atmospheric shots of swans at sunset and sunrise.

Speak to you next time!