In the second of a series of articles celebrating the swans that reside on the lakes of Wanstead Park and Wanstead Flats, Tracey Adebowale-Jones welcomes new life, locally and across the waterways of Britain
In Wanstead Park, we have three breeding pairs of swans on our four lakes (known to swans as territories), Perch Pond, Heronry Pond, Ornamental Waters and Shoulder Of Mutton Pond. Over on Wanstead Flats, we have a breeding pair (and very unusually a mistress!) on Alexander Lake, and on Jubilee Pond, we have a non-breeding flock.
Swan pairs will nest on the same territory every year unless they are driven away by another pair looking for a nesting site. The early months of spring often see many territorial spats on the lakes, which can result in injury or even death. Once established, however, it is a journey of hard work and waiting for the breeding pair.
The swans will spend many hours building their nest from twigs, leaves and vegetation. Sadly, as our litter problem becomes more of an issue, we will see plastic and bits of rubbish in the nest, so it is important that we keep our parks clean. The female (pen) will create a hollow in the middle of the nest as she builds the walls higher to keep safe from predators. The nest will usually be surrounded by water and hidden from sight as much as possible.
From late April, the pen will start laying and incubating, leaving the nest only to eat and bathe – but only for short periods. The male (cob) will be seen displaying his feathers as a sign to stay away and will stay close by to protect his mate and soon-to-be new family. Swans will lay up to 10 eggs; hatching occurs from May to June/July. Once the cygnets are hatched, it is a testing time for the parents as they protect them from gulls, pike, terrapins and, sadly, humans.
Last year, Wanstead Park saw eggs taken and smashed and the Perch pair lost all their cygnets to predators. The Ornamental pair were much luckier, having immediately moved their clutch to a safer nest site following hatching, and managed to keep seven of their eight cygnets.
It’s a difficult time for the swan volunteers too, as we keep close guard over the breeding pairs and monitor their nests and their cygnets. We all feel a sense of loss when we see one cygnet has gone missing, let alone all of them. Within a day of the Perch pair hatching eight eggs this year, one went missing.
This breeding season has obviously fallen in the midst of the Covid-19 lockdown, and the park has attracted so many more visitors. The swans and their cygnets have become used to a number of photographers at any one time, bringing their youngsters onto the bank for food and attention. But this leaves them vulnerable, as people still do not put dogs on leads or children run to see them. It is at this point that swans can show their more protective side and hiss and raise their wings. It is not only humans who are sent off; Canada geese, coots and ducks are all sent away, often by the cob, if they come within a wing length of the swan family. Their little downy, fluffy babies are well protected by their large parents.
By eight to 10 weeks old, if they have survived, the cygnets will have reached half their adult size and have their grey-brown plumage. At 13 to 17 weeks, those once tiny cygnets are ready to learn to fly, and by September they are practising their flight techniques with the help of mum and dad. In the park, you are often able to witness the whole family taking off and returning after a flying lesson.
In the next article, I hope to be able to show a chronicle of the new swans of Wanstead as those who survive grow up and become independent.