All swans are white, right? Majestic snow-white angels of the lake. Wrong! It was during a 1980s summer holiday to a small English seaside town that I discovered the mute swan’s alter ego; the Black Swan.
The English town of Dawlish sits on the south coast of the county of Devon. It has been symbolised by the Black swan since 1906, when they were introduced from Australia by a New Zealander named John Nash. The species has made Dawlish Water their home since then, except for a brief hiatus between the wars. A Black swan drifting across the lake was such a thrilling sight for a wide-eyed bird-loving boy, on his summer holiday.
Most of us have encountered the Tundra swans of North America, or the majestic Mute swan that I grew up with, on the waterways of England. When spotted in the Northern Hemisphere, the Black swan is something wonderfully exotic.
It would be another 25 years before I would get to see the Black swan in its native habitat; the lakes of Australia. I had migrated to Sydney, Australia for work and was living close to an urban park. A park that is without doubt one of the world’s great urban birding spots; Centennial Parklands.
The park has a large lake which is home to flocks of waterfowl. The lake became a favourite walking spot during my stay, and scattered around the lake at any one time are a dozen or so Black swans.
The black swan is a mighty, yet elegant bird. Growing to about 140 cm (55 inches) and weighing in at up to 9 Kg (19.8 lbs) with a wingspan of nearly 2 meters (6 feet), the swan cuts an impressive figure. When it unfurls its neck from the trademark ‘S’ shape, it has the longest neck (relatively) of all the world’s swans. A flap of the formidable wings reveals a secret nod to its northern cousins, a set of white flight feathers to match the white band on the scarlet beak. A scarlet beak that bleeds into a captivating eye.
During my time living in Australia I didn’t photograph the Black swan. I’m not sure why, but perhaps it just didnt feel like a wild bird. There were so many of them and they were not shy in begging people for food. Maybe I had the feeling of them being an ornamental addition to a park lake. During a return visit to Australia I decided to go back to Centennial Parklands and take a few photos. The black swans were happy to oblige.
When drifting serenely across a pond the swan appears entirely black, except for a little buff frosting on the feather tips. I watched a proud looking bird that was bathing itself in the center of the lake. With a great commotion it would plunge under the water and use its powerful wings to create a shower for itself. The noisy flapping provided me with a great opportunity to capture the snow white flight feathers that usually remain hidden when not in flight.
Black swans feed on aquatic plants that grow a necks length beneath the surface of the lake. In urban ponds they are smart enough to grab whatever the local kids are throwing to the ducks and coots. They also have a taste for grass, and it is common to find the swans on the pasture around the lake, plucking at the fresh green shoots. They don’t even need to stand up for this lazy feast.
Black swans can live for up to 40 years although 10 to 15 years is more common. A pair of swans will usually bond for life, but studies have shown a ‘divorce rate’ of about 1 pair in 20. This is significantly lower than Australia’s human divorce rate! The Black swan’s life pairing suggests the kind of monogamy that we imagine of these romanticised angels of the lake. But DNA studies show that 15% of cygnets are not related to the father in the family. It seems that the female likes to keep a little diversity in the gene pool.
I still can’t quite process a Black swan as a wild bird in its native habitat. It feels like some kind of strange crossbreed that zoos and ornamental lakes keep to wow visitors. This majestic bird remains visually striking to me, and fills me with the same sense of awe as the first birds that I saw all those years ago on Dawlish Water.
Join the conversation below. Have you seen Black swans in Australia? Maybe you have seen them on lakes in Europe or America? 👇👇
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