SWAN

Classy animal kingdom from the Croatian Šoderica lake

Swan Cartoon Boris Vargovic - Fine Art Photography

Why a story about swans, of all things? There is a simple answer to this question, just as there is for many other questions.

Meeting the world of elegant mannerisms and gaining the trust of the greatest and most beautiful flyers operating under Podravina skies, reason enough to share this little piece of the Croatian Podravina animal kingdom, in both word and image, with any who are interested.

Drava River, Vargović, White Swans, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi  - Fine Art Photography

Podravina is the area situated around the river Drava in Northwest Croatia. Here the official Croatian word for "what", "što", is replaced with a dialectic "kaj", the main meal consists of cheese and cream with onion and bacon and spritzer, which is used almost as a form of medicine, all within a homely atmosphere of some faraway cottage beside one of many natural or artificial Podravina lakes, where, naturally, the main protagonist this story has lived for decades.

The largest of these Podravina lakes, Šoderica, is situated not far from the Croatian town of Koprivnica and it boasts the greatest number of these waterproof - feathered creatures gathering there. It is this lake that is the setting of our story.

Vargovic Photo - Murray River Australia - Fine Art Photography

This area serves mostly for recreational purposes with the locals mainly using it to relax and enjoy Mother Nature, except when local mosquitos spoil the fun during some summer months and scatter away the whole regional population.

Anyway, let's focus on the swan at hand.

In the last 5-6 months of 2016 I have developed my own recreational potentials in photographing and socializing with a flock of swans currently inhabiting Šoderica. It's a team of 13 to 20 and for the most part its members have been the same for months. A new swan loners drops by occasionally according to its own flight schedule, but there is always at least 15 members of the usual ensemble, plus two wild geese and an equally wild duck.

Šoderica u Podravini, Swan and sunset, White Swan, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Soderica Lake, buy print from Boris Vargovic Photography

There are, of course, hundreds of wild ducks, geese, cormorants and other 40 specific species of birds nesting and wintering on Šoderica lake and appear even gulls occasionally, but these two geese and one duck were omnipresent smugglers in every one of my rendezvous with the swans. In winter on the Šoderica lake has periods when we can see more than 300 swans.

Geese, Ducks, White Swans, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Šoderica, Boris Vargovic Photography
Geese, Ducks, White Swans, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Šoderica, Boris Vargovic Photography

An interesting and thought-provoking detail is damaged wing of one of the geese, which is clearly visible on the photos, but still neither one of the geese left each other's side for even a minute. Even the distance between them is never greater than 2 meters. I'm not an ornithologist, but I came to the conclusion that the fact that one of them can't fly is the reason why these two geese stick together. Meanwhile writing this story, I noticed another goose also has problems with the wing and can not fly, it might confirm my relationship theory of these two geese.

Geese, Ducks, White Swans, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Šoderica, buy print from Boris Vargovic Photography

Even as a kid, as many others, I would frequent Šoderica to take photographs of the swans and of this aquatic world of Podravina district, but it's only now, a bit more than three decades later, that I realize how special that world truly is.

Šoderica u Podravini, Swan and sunset, White Swans, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Soderica Lake, Boris Vargovic Photography

The swan, as the most peculiar element of Podravina’s animal kingdom, is not just some bird. Once we get a better insight into their world and their hierarchy, we can only be amazed at it and feel enjoyment whenever the opportunity arises. After all, Tchaikovsky and many others were inspired by this gracious bird and made it eternal in their own way.

Šoderica, Swan and sunset, White Swan, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Šoderica, Boris Vargovic Photography

The beginning of my story dates to April when I, I've lost count, took myself for a walk on the side of Šoderica with a loaf of corn bread for the swans (by now a vital part of my photography equipment since the gentlemen have a taste for corn bread) which greeted me in a reserved and fearful way as usual, with hissing and wing flapping. The swans of Šoderica are used to people and are somewhat socialized, but they always remain fearful and very careful.

Šoderica, Alpha Swan, White Swan, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Šoderica, Boris Vargovic Photography

After a few more spring visits to Šoderica I eventually understood how to approach the swans even closer: by physically lowering myself to their level. Animals tend to see us as threatening due to our height. This likely wouldn't work on a giraffe, elephants or rhinos but in this case something changed. The moment I sat on the shore and the swans with their long necks could raise their heads above mine, that was my ticket into their world.

Soderica, Swans, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Šoderica, Boris Vargović Photography

Today when I come with some bread or cooked corn, even before sitting down I'm already surrounded with my team that knows exactly what follows. No sudden movements though, or the team can easily become team.

Soderica, White Swans Flock, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Šoderica, Boris Vargović Photography

It would take too long to describe in detail all the swan battle tactics when it comes to acquiring bread in the commotion near the shore, but certain tricks are so good that I must share them.

Swans in Fog, Šoderica u Podravini, Swans at Sunrise, White Swans, Swan's Foggy Morning, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Soderica Lake, Boris Vargovic Fine Photography Artworks

In the swan world the bigger i.e. stronger survive. Larger individuals are always in the front lines, closer to the hand with the bread, and they don't allow the smaller ones to break through. So, the smaller ones remain in the background or on the sidelines, except for a few wise ones that simply come out on the shore, approach me from behind and wait for their piece of bread or cooked corn there. Interestingly, always the same swans do this, so it seems there are some tacticians among them.

Soderica, White Swans Flock, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Šoderica, buy print from Boris Vargovic Photography

One of them is so relaxed that he even takes bread pieces off my shoulder. And when I put them on my head, he took them from my head as well! The same wise-guy will sometimes place its head on my shoulder and grab a few pieces from my hand. When a swan, which isn't a particularly gentle and approachable bird, places its head on a man's shoulder and even allows itself to be pet, who can resist adding something like that into their story from the Šoderica lake in Croatian Podravina district.

The swan, like most animals, does what swan sees. When one of them heads in a certain direction, the others follow. Once one grabs some bread from my hand, others do too. One starts cleaning its feathers, the others do too. And on and on it goes. When it comes to being hand-fed some swans have already become resistant to fear, but a few other fearful ones rather opt for taking the crumbs off the ground or the water surface. A few times I've placed a piece of bread in my mouth and fed the swans.

Swann Feedeing, Soderica, White Swans Flock, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Šoderica, Boris Vargovic Photography

The consequences of my fooling around with them are so funny since today a few swans that surround me at the shore tend to peck at my ears or even nose probably thinking that any protrusion on my face must be food.

Šoderica, Vargović, Soderica lake, White Swans, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Boris Vargović Photography

It's interesting to see the ritual following the feeding ceremony. One by one, they spread across Šoderica and engage in their famous feather cleaning ritual, each on their own aquatic position.

Šoderica u Podravini, Cloudy Swan Lake, White Swans, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Soderica Lake, buy print from Boris Vargovic Fine Photography Artworks
Šoderica u Podravini, Cloudy Swan Lake, White Swans, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Soderica Lake, Boris Vargovic Photography

The feathers of a swan feel to the touch incomparable to even cashmere and silk combined. The skin under their feathers never gets wet since their feathers are incredibly dense and smooth, and feels greasy when touched. What is actually being greasy because under the tail they have a sebaceous gland from secreting some sort of protection for their feathers of water and make it waterproof, as well as geese and ducks and possibly other birds.

Šoderica u Podravini, Swan and sunset, White Swan, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Soderica Lake, Boris Vargovic Photography print

Swans can be unpleasant in their behaviour towards one another when it comes to bread. Aggression is manifested in pecking at each other's neck, wings or tail so strongly that feathers fly all around Šoderica. In the case of stealing bread from one another, the reactions can get incredibly violent, like a swan holding the other's neck tight with its beak and jumping onto its back trying to submerge it. They can fight like that up to ten meters in the waters, so the swan's grip of their beak is no laughing matter. I haven't had the chance to feel anything like that on my own anatomical inventory, but a word of advice for anyone who decides to feed the swans with their children: Don't let your kids hand-feed them.

Šoderica u Podravini, Swan and sunset, White Swan, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Soderica Lake, Boris Vargovic Photography
Šoderica u Podravini, Swan and sunset, White Swan, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Soderica Lake, Boris Vargovic Photography

I witnessed a few situations where one male chased another who ran to the shore because there was no way to escape the pursuer in the water. This can last for half an hour until they both calm down. Certain individuals can have a downright toxic personality. It's especially comical when a goose, three times smaller than a swan, starts a fight with one and keeps savagely chasing and plucking it because the swan got in the way of the goose's piece of bread.

In regard to feeding the swans, bread isn't the most ideal solution because swan, like other birds, doesn't have an enzyme for digesting bread's gluten, same as sugar, additives and other harmful substances, so it shouldn't be used too much. Cooked corn is the best food for them so there's a lot of joy waiting for someone who wants to do a bit of cooking. I offered the swans a few kinds of green salad, but they weren't interested in my experimental menu.

Soderica, Swan and sunset, White Swan, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Šoderica, Boris Vargovic Photography print

If you choose to feed the swans bread, make the pieces very small and moist and preferably take corn bread. If the bread is dry, it takes 3-5 minutes for it to get to the swan's stomach, so it's good to feed them in intervals. A swan always drinks water with its meal, but when it comes to dry food like bread that's sometimes not enough and it can even choke on it. Statistics say that an adult swan eats 3-4 kg of grass per day. Among other things, it eats insects, small fish and even frogs. Toast would be a better solution than bread, but this is yet to be tested.

Soderica, White Swans, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Šoderica, Boris Vargovic Photography

During daylight, their vision can be compared to well-trained ninjas and Australian Aborigines together and if you show up in a bit brightly colored clothing they can see you all the way across the lake from the distance of some 100 meters. It's enough for one of them to head your way and others will follow, but once it gets dark they can't even see a piece of bread in your hand from 7 - 8 inches.

Soderica, Swan Feedeing, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Šoderica, Boris Vargović Fine Photography Artworks print
Soderica, Swan Feedeing, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Šoderica, Boris Vargović Photography

If they can't see you, it's impossible to call them, as I've tried many times for the sake of photography with various whistles, waving, lamps etc. The only thing I haven't tried is smoke signals, though I might once check how acceptable it is to light a fire on the shores of Šoderica. Waving a huge white flag would guarantee a reaction from the birds, but due to my worries that someone might call a psychiatrist, I gave up on trying out this tactic. Such unconventional experiments are better to be left for a Sunday when the psychiatric ward is taking a day off.

Soderica, White Swans, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Šoderica, Boris Vargovic Photography

There's a bunch of anecdotes to share from the world of swans and our last few months of socialization. It's impossible to describe them all, so I'll share only the most interesting ones. One time I was sitting on the shore surrounded by the usual swan gang which was completely into its feeding frenzy. Suddenly, everything calmed down. The whole gang elegantly retreated into water like perfectly organized excursion and collectively swam to the other side of the lake, all 15 of them. With more than half of corn bread in my hand, I sat like lonely Robinson on the shore and wondered what had happened and where the gang was off to. I didn't understand what was going on because only a minute ago a few of them were almost sitting on my head. I only heard a sound of water from my right and when I turned it all became clear. It's „Them“, a world inside a world; alpha male and female and 6 already grown swans. A scene like from a movie where the imperators arrive and masses and obedient subjects respectfully bow and run to make way.

Soderica, Young Swans flock, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Šoderica, Boris Vargovic Photography

Awe of the animal world in action. An amazing sight. Especially since you could see from the behavior of the male that he's aware of his superiority over the entire fauna and flora around him. He loosened up a bit once he swam near me, my body of 250 pounds and quite an impressive volume. Nevertheless, the protective attitude towards minor subjects stayed on its highest level.

Soderica Lake, Alpha Swan, White Swan, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Šoderica, Boris Vargovic Fine Photography Artworks
Soderica, Alpha Swan, White Swan, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Šoderica, Boris Vargovic Photography print

The photos show the aforementioned swan family and it's not hard to see what quality specimens they are. The alpha male looks like he came out of a gym of some fitness studio where steroids are given at the drop of a hat. He must be weighting some 20 kilograms with a big gland over his beak (such gland is typical in a male during mating season). Average size swan needs a runway of some 30 meters of water to take off and land. This male needs at least a small jumbo jet runway to take off and land comfortably. By next spring the family will have become independent from each other and excavators digging gravel from this lake will probably expand Šoderica's bed and provide this male with enough space for his lofty manoeuvre of taking off to some other romantic adventures at some other coordinates.

Soderica, Young Swans flock, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Šoderica, Boris Vargovic Photography
Soderica, Young Swans flock, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Šoderica, Boris Vargovic Fine Photography Artworks

The female, also a huge specimen, had gray-brown feathers much like the other young swans which were probably born around April or May. It's like they were all chosen by some new-wave Charles Darwin with the most precise method of natural selection. There are so many details concerning this family that a movie could be made about them.

Soderica, Swan and sunset, White Swan, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Šoderica, Boris Vargovic Photography

I was sitting confused at the same spot, waiting to see how these events unfold. I have to admit I was slightly nervous, since I'd read how unpleasant swans can be with their young because it's about the wild animals. The male, if he senses any kind of danger whatsoever, can easily do the part of the stunt man from a new Rambo sequel, which hasn't been filmed yet since they haven't found a director creative enough to even conceive of such violent imagery.

Still, there was no need to fear them, though some caution doesn’t hurt, from me this time. The group swam closer to get some food and when I started throwing bread into the water, the tension grounded itself a bit. Both young swans and the male took bread, even straight from my hand, so voraciously that they couldn't be happier. And neither could I. The hungry male took my bread with no regards to proper table manners, but the female's behaviour raised my level of respect towards all women.

Soderica, Alpha Swan, White Swan, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Šoderica, Boris Vargovic Fine Photography Artworks
Šoderica u Podravini, Swan and sunset, White Swan, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Soderica Lake, Boris Vargovic Photography

The same female, probably no less hungry than all the others, didn't take one piece of bread for herself, but instead waited for the young ones to take what was meant for her. She only took bread when I threw it outside of the young ones' range and elegantly gulped it down. What animalistic order!

The strategic formation of the family group speaks for itself. They approached in a formation with a male on the left, the young ones in the middle and the female on the right. They kept the same formation throughout the feeding time and departed in the same way. Later, with each appearance of the family group, the procedure was the same and there's no way that any other swan could come even close to the young ones without the male swan beating its tail all across Šoderica. When the same male raises his wings and bends them in a semi-circle, translated into swan language, it clearly means “Someone will get hurt”. This body language works so perfectly that when they see the male in his protective stance, they know immediately that an adventure film called „Dispersal at Swan Lake“ can now begin.

Šoderica u Podravini, Swan and sunset, White Swans, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Soderica Lake, Boris Vargovic Photography

Ten days after that meeting with the family group all swans started gathering in the same place, which might mean that they decided on certain rules when it comes to their socialization. Still, if a swan came even close to one of the young ones, the male would react in a second by the aforementioned scenario.

Soderica, Young Swans flock, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Šoderica, Boris Vargovic Photography

Young swans sound completely different from adult ones and it's not possible to describe that sound. It's more like hissing on a higher octave that in our human world can be performed only by those opera singers who are on a strict diet.

Young swans have gray-brown feathers, the same color as their beaks, and their feathers turn completely whitens two years after they get done with their puberty, i.e. when they turn into an adult swan. They can fly already with 3-4 months and they stay with their family until the next mating season, so a year. When the young swans hatch, the female carries them on her back. During the mating season, they seriously need to be avoided because, jokes aside, adult swans protecting their nest can be very unpleasant and aggressive and the big guys like the already mentioned one can even be dangerous. You can find a text on the Internet about how a kayaker got killed by a male swan because he got too close to the nest during mating season. When a swan attacks, it tries to drown the intruder with its big wings, hits and plucks, which becomes especially dangerous if the intruder isn't a very good swimmer. It's almost impressive that it will even fight to the death. That's what a lionhearted swan is capable of.

Vargovic Boris Photography, Swan and sunset, White Swan, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Soderica Lake, Boris Vargovic Fine Photography Artworks

Statistics say that a swan's life expectancy is, with a bit of luck, some 20 years. Most survive only 5-7 years. A big number of young swans die due to inexperience and accidents during their maiden flights. The attraction of this part of animal folklore on Šoderica becomes even more interesting if you spot a stray black swan which can occasionally be seen at some places in Europe.

Šoderica u Podravini, Cloudy Swan Lake, White Swans, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Soderica Lake, Boris Vargovic Photography

And something I left for the end and which I think is pretty respectable of these birds is that they're monogamous. They stick to one partner their whole life and only search for another if their current one dies. Many even die of sorrow once they're left without their life partner. Regardless of how true this information may be, I've personally enjoyed the company of these birds, a feeling that can be mutual when two completely different worlds get to know each other a little better and btw...

Boris Vargović, Šoderica Koprivnica, Picturing Swans, Photographing Swans, White Swan, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Soderica Lake, Boris Vargovic Photography

Behavior and gestures of these birds sometimes tells me that some of the Swan's perfectly understand what the camera is and what it is used.

Soderica, Swan and sunrise, White Swan, Podravina, Croatia, Koprivnica, Labudovi, Šoderica, Boris Vargovic Photography

Fables don't exist only in books and movies. There are many things in reality right under our nose that we don't even notice.

Phothograpy & story copyright © : Boris Vargovic

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