Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The swan takeoff - what a pilot

Click on the image for the video

I was walking alongside the Grand Canal in Dublin towards the LUAS tram line bridge at the Charlemont stop, which is also close to the Sixth Lock canal gate on the other side, and I stopped to watch a swan swimming strongly towards me. Hello, I said, this bird is going somewhere. Her speed through the water made a prow wave either side of the swan’s breast and a wash behind. There was a real sense of purpose here.

Then the swan turned in. To feed, I thought. No, it went slightly into reverse, legs maneuvering underwater, and I realized that it was making a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn, to face in the direction I was walking. Then, without any further ado, it started to take off. I was right beside it. Wings flapping so that the tips actually beat the surface of the water, it rose slightly. Then the webbed feet gave additional forward thrust by seeming to run along the surface of the water. Slowly, it rose, but was also heading for the LUAS tramway bridge.

It got gradually higher, wings working away, but swans are not pigeons – because of their weight they’re ponderous in the air. In fact, I believe they are the largest bird that can still fly. The ostrich and some penguins are bigger but they’re water or earth bound. Now it was rapidly approaching the bridge and for a second it looked like it might collide with it - and that was even before it had gained enough height to clear the overhead cables that power the tram. But then there was a last, powerful surge from the wings and it was high enough to be above everything in its way. A few seconds later I saw it landing on the other side of the canal lock.

It was a magnificent spectacle. But for me the wonderful part was the obvious confidence the swan had in the distance from the bridge it knew it had to allow so that it could get over it. It seemed to know exactly where to turn after swimming away from the bridge in order to create an adequate runway for itself. Does it make that judgment every time, or has it, through trial and error in the past, established a landmark on the bank? I think the latter, because when I saw it swimming it never once looked behind – it just stopped at a certain point and turned.

I have been able to find videos of swans taking off and there is a link to one above. For me this is one of the many wonders of nature, but most times they have lots of space in which to get airborne. The takeoff I saw was special.

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