Whooper Swan

Irish Name: Eala Ghlórach
Scientific name: Cygnus cygnus
Bird Family: Swans
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Conservation status

Status

Winter visitor to wetlands throughout Ireland from October to April.

Identification

Similar to Bewick's Swan, but larger, with longer neck. Yellow and black bill, with the yellow projecting below the nostril.

Voice

Vocal bugling or honking.

Diet

Aquatic vegetation, but they are commonly found grazing on agricultural grasslands and fields where there is spilled grain, as well as potatoes from cultivated land.

Breeding

The Whooper Swans that are present in Ireland each winter nest in Iceland during the summer. Each year a small number of Whoopers stay in Ireland for the summer and there have been occasional breeding records on lakes in the midlands and north-west.

Wintering

Most on lowland open farmland around inland wetlands, regularly seen while feeding on grasslands and stubble.

Monitored by

Irish Wetland Bird Survey (I-WeBS), and a special swan census is carried out every five years, most recently in 2015. The next census takes place in January 2020, aiming to count and gather data on every Whooper Swan in Ireland over the weekend of the 11th and 12th of January. The census is coordinated in the Republic of Ireland by our I-WeBS team.

Blog posts about this bird

I-WeBS

Whooper Swan numbers in Ireland increase in new census results

A census carried out across the island of Ireland last year found that Whooper Swan numbers increased by 27%, while Bewick’s Swan look set to be lost from Ireland in the coming years.   The 8th International Swan Census took place in January 2020. The census is carried out over a single weekend every five years, where ornithologists and birdwatchers across Ireland set out to locate and count every Whooper Swan and Bewick’s Swan in the country. The aim of the census is to produce an updated population estimate for these species in Ireland. The survey was coordinated in the Republic of Ireland by BirdWatch Ireland as part of the Irish Wetland Bird Survey (I-WeBS) under contract to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Nearly 300 volunteer birdwatchers, as well as staff from BirdWatch Ireland and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, took part in the census, checking over 1,500 locations across the island of Ireland. A total of 19,111 Whooper Swans were recorded, 14,467 in the Republic of Ireland (ROI) and 4,644 in Northern Ireland (NI). This is the highest total ever recorded in Ireland and represents a 27% increase in the Whooper Swan population since the previous census in 2015.   “Our Whooper Swans breed in Iceland during the summer and spend the winter in Ireland and Britain. Results from previous censuses had indicated that the Irish-wintering population of Whooper Swans was starting to plateau – growth had slowed, and numbers were largely stable in recent censuses, so we really weren’t expecting this level of increase” said Brian Burke of BirdWatch Ireland, who coordinated the survey in ROI. “They’re a species that is deep-rooted in Irish mythology, and still today they really captivate people right across the country when they arrive in the autumn, so we’re delighted to see them doing so well”. In total, 550 flocks were recorded in Ireland, with largest numbers in counties Offaly, Galway, Roscommon and Donegal in ROI, and Derry and Antrim in NI. In ROI, wetlands along the River Shannon, and its lakes and tributaries form a stronghold for the species.   Agricultural grassland is an important food source for our migratory swans and geese, and 74% of Whooper Swans were recorded feeding on improved and rough grassland during the census. “Pasture fields in close proximity to lakes and flooded rivers provide crucial feeding habitat for Whooper Swans, and any farmers I’ve met take great pride in hosting their local Whooper flock each winter” said Mr Burke. “The recorded increase in the Irish Whooper Swan population is really encouraging. For a species like Whoopers to do well, conditions across its migratory range must be right. The census results suggest that conditions for Whooper Swans in both Ireland and Iceland, where they breed, are very suitable”, said Seán Kelly, Waterbird Ecologist with the National Parks and Wildlife Service. “We are grateful to all the volunteers across the country who participated in the swan census; without them it simply wouldn’t be possible to so carefully monitor these species”.   Minister of State for Heritage, Malcolm Noonan T.D, welcomed the report and paid tribute to all those involved: “I’m delighted to welcome the results from the recent Swan Census – the eighth such census in Ireland since the 1980s – which allows Ireland to robustly monitor swan populations,” he said. “Biodiversity data is so important and I’d like to send my sincere thanks to the dedicated volunteers around the country, as well as the all-important staff within NPWS and BirdWatch Ireland, without whom this census would not have been possible. The census shows the positive impact of the work done by farmers, landowners and NPWS staff within the NPWS Farm Plan Scheme to protect these beautiful birds, and highlights the value of the ‘Goose and Swan’ agri-environment measure in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine’s GLAS scheme. I look forward to visiting some of the sites leading the way for Whooper Swan conservation, particularly the lands along the River Shannon and around the fantastic Wexford Wildfowl Reserve, when we are able to travel again.”     The census revealed some sad news, however, in the continued decline of the Bewick’s Swan in Ireland. Bewick’s Swans nest in Arctic Russia during the summer and winter in northern Europe, the UK and Ireland. As climate change has caused milder winters on the continent, many Bewick’s Swans have been ‘short-stopping’, that is, not flying as far as Ireland, simply because they don’t need to anymore. Migration is a hugely difficult undertaking, so they won’t burn through their energy and fat reserves if they don’t have to. This, coupled with declines in the size of the international Bewick’s Swan population, has seen the Irish contingent getting smaller and smaller each winter. Only 12 Bewick’s Swans were recorded in Ireland for the census – 11 in Wexford and a lone bird in Roscommon, and it’s expected that they will cease to occur in Ireland altogether in the near future.   Full details of the census results are due to be published in BirdWatch Ireland’s scientific journal Irish Birds later this year. A write-up of the results, including the totals for every county in Ireland, will be featured in the Spring 2021 issue of BirdWatch Ireland's Wings membership magazine. To become a member receive Wings four times per year, and support our work, see our different membership options here.  
I-WeBS

Geese and Swans return to Ireland for the winter

If you haven't noticed the dearth of swifts and swallows around the country recently, then this weeks weather will have put it beyond doubt that the summer is indeed over! When most people think of "birds flying south for the winter" they associate it with a mass exodus of Swallows, Martins, Swifts, Warblers and Terns (amongst others), but don't forget that it also means an influx of over 50 waterbird species from northerly latitudes into Ireland for the winter! In the last few weeks the first reports of our wintering goose and swan species have been filtering in, and here in BirdWatch Ireland we love this time of year! See below some of the details about our Goose and Swan species that have arrived in Ireland in recent weeks:  

Greenland White-fronted Goose

The first Greenland White-fronted Geese of winter 2019/20 arrived on the North Slob in Wexford yesterday (01 October 2019) - four adults and a juvenile. The Greenland White-fronted Goose is the species on the BirdWatch Ireland logo. If you want to get a good look at this species, make sure you visit Wexford Wildfowl Reserve this winter. Later this month there will be a number of public events for their annual 'Goose Week' and they will also be celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the reserve.    

Light-bellied Brent Goose

brent-goose-with-green-background The first Brent records of 2019 came at the end of August, which isn't actually unusual, though the bulk of birds arrived several weeks later (and are still coming!). When they first arrive in Ireland they head en mass for Strangford Lough. After refueling there, they gradually disperse around the Irish coast as the winter goes on. Many Brent have already returned to their usual haunts in Donegal, Derry, Louth and Dublin, where they'll feed on eelgrass and algae in the sea, before turning to terrestrial grasslands for a few months before making the return journey back to Canada!    

Pink-footed Goose

close-up-of-pink-footed-goose One of the first records in Ireland this year was via the WWT's Kane Brides who informed us of a satellite-tagged bird that arrived from Iceland on the 4th of September, spending a couple of hours in Roscommon before heading to Carlingford Lough on the east coast that night. Small numbers of Pink-footed Geese winter in Ireland, but hundreds of thousands winter in the UK and stop in Ireland en route from their Icelandic breeding grounds.  Since the start of September there have been loads of Pink-foots (Pink-feets?!) spotted in Donegal and smaller flocks in Wexford, Louth and Dublin.    

Greylag Geese

In the last few days there have been multiple reports of large flocks of Greylag Geese at coastal sites in Donegal. Greylags are a tricky one - we have a resident population that breeds here, but we also get migrants from Iceland for the winter too. And there's no way to tell which is which in the field as they look the exact same! Donegal has many feral/naturalised Greylag Geese, but some of those recent large flocks probably have some Icelandic-migrants mixed in too.     Barnacle Geese barnacle-goose-standing-in-water The first 'Barnies' of the season touched down in Donegal at the start of this week. This species prefers coastal grasslands and offshore islands in the west and north-west. Because of the remote locations they use, the NPWS recently carried out a Barnacle Goose census by plane!      

Whooper Swan

The first definite migrants have only appeared in recent days - in Donegal, Derry and today in Wexford. In the last census, there were nearly 12,000 Whooper Swans in ROI and >3,500 in NI. The I-WeBS office in BirdWatch Ireland, together with our colleagues in Northern Ireland and further afield, will be coordinating another census of Whooper Swans in January 2020 so please keep an eye on your local flock as the winter progresses!   So there you have it - thousands of geese and swans are currently migrating from Iceland, Greenland and Canada to spend the winter in Ireland! Many of these species are of conservation concern and we're lucky to have the wetlands to support them, so do keep an eye out for them in your area as the winter goes on!  

Each winter we monitor Ireland's waterbird populations through I-WeBS - a survey coordinated by BirdWatch Ireland, funded by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and carried out by a network of bird surveyors who volunteer their time and expertise.

The I-WeBS office is interested in any records of Greylag or Pink-footed Geese this winter - please email us at iwebs@birdwatchireland.ie with numbers, locations and dates.

The website 'IrishBirding' was also a useful source for this article. 

 

Similar Species

Bewick's Swan

Irish Name:
Eala Bewick
Scientific name:
Cygnus columbianus
Bird Family:
Swans

Mute Swan

Irish Name:
Eala bhalbh
Scientific name:
Cygnus olor
Bird Family:
Swans