It could be our love of the underdog or perhaps the mystery shrouding their spring and summer absence but there is definitely something special about Bewick’s swans.
Sir Peter Scott, founder of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, certainly enjoyed these graceful birds designing a purpose built lake, overlooked by his house in Gloucestershire, which he hoped would become a new wintering site for the species.
Now, the long, two-story Peng Observatory, only yards from his former home at WWT’s headquarters in Slimbridge, shelters hundreds of people in winter to watch daily swan feeds at the lake in which Bewick’s are a star attraction.
All the adult and year-old birds are identified by their bill patterns and named by WWT researchers. This helps visitors follow their life-histories, check on their wellbeing and occasionally their jousting antics with bigger, bolshier native mute swans.
“Bewick’s fly more than 1,800 miles from breeding grounds in high Arctic Russia,” says Julia Newth, one of WWT’s denizen Bewick’s swan experts. “For most of the 20th century, we had very little information about their summer haunts so there was always this mystery about where they’d come from. They’re so elegant and refined and they have this evocative bugling call. They capture people’s imaginations perhaps because of their long migration or because they are faithful both to partners and to sites. We’ve had only two cases of divorce among the thousands of pairs we’ve studied at Slimbridge.”
Maybe that’s part of their allure."
Bewick’s are Britain’s smallest and rarest swan and the arrival of the first three at Slimbridge in October caused quite a stir not least among indignant resident mute swans.
“Clearly not used to sharing the lake, the mutes are doing all they can to puff themselves up, look scary and chase them off,” Julia writes in her entertaining Bewick swan diary.
“It’s not working however,” she chuckles, “as the Bewick’s are far more nifty and nimble – they are literally swimming circles around the mutes!”
Between 300 and 400 Bewick’s are expected to overwinter at Slimbridge, a western outpost for the species. Dario, who has returned each year since 1999, has accumulated quite a number of (human) followers.
“We know roughly how many kilometres he’s flown over his lifetime, how many times he has returned to Slimbridge, his breeding success and who he’s paired with,” Julia explains.
People can also adopt a Bewick’s swan with funds supporting conservation work.
The Bewick’s is a flagship bird for WWT but by no means the only migrating species to catch the eye.
Migrant whooper swans from Iceland join them in their thousands at Welney in Norfolk which also stages spectacular daily swan feeds.
Martin Mere WWT centre in Lancashire is expecting around 30,000 pink-footed geese this winter with Caerlaverock on the Solway Firth anticipating more than 35,000 barnacle geese.
WWT’s Castle Espie, overlooking Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland, hosts most of the world’s light-bellied brent geese while back at Slimbridge, around 35,000 other migrating wildfowl will join the Bewick’s.
Visit a WWT site to witness any one of these wildlife spectacles and the memory may never fade.
How about a trip to the Slimbridge Festival of Birds on 4-5 February 2012
Visit a WWT site to witness any one of these wildlife spectacles and the memory may never fade. www.wwt.org.uk/