Kane Brides and Steve Heaven update us on the - much later than expected, but nonetheless extremely welcome - influx of Bewick's swans to the UK this winter.
One of the challenges facing WWT as it works to save and protect Bewick’s swans from illegal hunting across the flyway, is how to change people’s behaviour so it’s no longer socially acceptable to hunt the birds. Our Swan Champions Project is a grassroots network of passionate individuals including scientists, hunters, indigenous leaders, local businesses, teachers and young people that aims to do just that. Drawn from across the Russian arctic, we believe they’re the best people to persuade their local communities, friends and families to stop hunting Bewick’s on their breeding grounds. Marina Samoilova is one of our Russian swan champions and works for the Federal Nature Reserve (Nenetskiy Zapovednik). This spring she took a Travelling Swan Exhibition to four schools across the remote Nenets Autonomous Okrug – one of the key areas where Bewick’s breed. The exhibition reached nearly 700 people and included numerous educational outreach activities with local schools. In addition each community visited is having a ringed swan named after it. Photo by Nenetskiy Zapovednik Here is her diary, translated from Russian to English, of her ‘Nature Reserve Marathon’ and how she managed to change the hearts and minds of young people across the region, encouraging them to become the conservationists of the future. For two weeks we roamed the remote, hospitable villages of Nes’, Oma, Nizhnyaya Pesha and Indiga with a wide-ranging eco-educational programme. During the journey, our team covered more than 1,200 km of snowy wastes without roads, held 40 nature talks and 15 educational masterclasses. Diary entry one: Nes’ village Our first stop was the village of Nes’, a self-sufficient village on the shores of the White Sea. Getting there was not easy. Strong winds, a snowstorm and a road badly damaged by 4x4s, gave us no time to get bored. However, because we had experienced state inspectors on hand, as part of the team, we reached our destination on time. The local residents greeted us like family, kindly supplying accommodation, food, a bath, a hall for the displays and lots of inquisitive children. It turns out they don’t meet people from outside of their community very often, so every day as we walked to work at the local cultural centre, we felt the attention as if we were celebrities. During the talks to the children about the reserve, it became clear they know little about the officially protected reserves, but in terms of knowledge of local nature, they are unrivalled. This isn’t surprising, as most of these children spend the whole summer on the tundra and know its inhabitants first-hand, not by hearsay. As a result, we learned much that was new and interesting. Photo by Nenetskiy Zapovednik During our three days at Nes’, we attended a poetry competition, judged items dedicated to the local culture, took part in rehearsals of song and dance and made friends with a remarkable little boy called Serezha who amused us with cheerful anecdotes. Overall, the trip was very productive for us all. We would like to thank the “Nes’ House of Local Culture”, the Nes’ middle school, the Nenets Museum of Local Culture and the many relatives of our state inspector Nikolaj Vanyut, for the opportunity of staying and working with you. Diary entry two: Oma village With our productive work in Nes’ finished, our friendly company moved on to the next village of Oma. Getting there wasn’t particularly difficult which was surprising after all the previous jolting on unmade roads. To pass the time, we began to count the partridges flying by. By about 30 partridges, most of the team had fallen asleep. We arrived at night. The village of Oma is an exceptionally beautiful old village, which made a powerful impression on us. The first thing that you notice is the width and tidy state of the streets. The most important feature, as with everywhere in the North, is the hospitality of the people. Over a cup of tea we were able to try all of Auntie Sima’s types of jam. Amazingly, this dear lady has not only made an extremely beautiful and productive garden (judging by the photos), but has singlehandedly covered corridors around her house with plastic bottle tops. Now in our office we collect not only used paper, batteries and plastic for recycling, but also bottle tops for Auntie Sima. Photo by Nenetskiy Zapovednik In Oma we worked in the school. We quickly transformed the empty corridors with our swan and natural history displays and exhibits, which attracted the children’s attention. During our excursions, we were struck by the discipline of the children. Absolutely all of them, from the youngest to the oldest, listened quietly to the talks and asked questions on things that interested them. Break times turned into sit-down sessions. The children came to us and told stories of their lives, shared their observations and questioned us about our work on the reserve. As a result, we quickly organised a careers guidance lesson for future students. We would like to express our respect to the director and all the teachers of Oma Middle School for the exceptional interest shown by their pupils and to wish them success for the future. Working in Oma was a pleasure and leaving was rather sad. Diary entry three: Nizhnyaya Pesha village Nizhnyaya Pesha is a pleasant old village on the banks of the river with the same name. We were here at the weekend and also for Valentine’s Day. Everyone was preparing for the event in their own way and we quickly realised we wouldn’t be able to do any productive work during the holiday. So we prepared the exhibits and set out for a walk. Photo by Nenetskiy Zapovednik After viewing all the sights of the village, we decided to have a look at the airport. We found the way and set off along a forest track. Halfway along, we came across an extremely large animal footprint. “It is just a big dog” we thought and were about to go further when we saw a piece of some kind of fur. We silently agreed that there was absolutely no need to see the airport and turned back. By the abandoned building of the cultural centre we met some local boys; when we asked them what there was to do, they suggested entering the ruins of the cultural centre. We could not refuse such a tempting offer so, gathering our courage, we waved through the broken window. Later we were able to tell these same boys how to live a healthy ecological way of life and conserve the environment. On Sunday morning, our host Aleksandr over a cup of tea decided to find us something to do. “Girls, why are you sitting there idle, you could pluck a partridge!” Our surprised faces gave their own reply. We had planned to spend the weekend in a cultural context with local people or meeting hunters and fishermen, not sitting in a heap of feathers. Our clever host knew that we would be of little use at this activity. The children of Pesha proved very inquisitive. They were happy to come to us to make a small swans from felt and to chat. The schoolteachers were especially interested in our work. They even invited us to run a scientific expedition in the autumn for the older pupils. That seemed to us to be an excellent idea and gave us something to think about on the way to Indiga our final destination. No matter how hard the people of Pesha tried to persuade us to stay another couple of days, we were adamant to press on. Photo by Nenetskiy Zapovednik Diary entry four: Indiga village Despite the snowstorm, which had been raging for the previous two days, we jumped into the vehicle and set out for Indiga. Everyone was sure that this huge vehicle would overcome any obstacle on its route. No one suspected what surprises Mother Nature had in store for us. About halfway there, while our state inspectors were searching the tundra with flashlights for signs of the road, we remembered that well-known expression: “We don’t have roads, only directions”. Very true words, but for some reason no-one paid them any attention then. However, we were travelling slowly but surely along the shores of the Barents Sea. At 60 km from our destination, we got stuck “up to our ears” in water. Our huge 4x4 simply got stuck in a rut. There was nothing for it – we had to dig. Two shovelfuls of wet snow and you are wet through. No matter how much we tried to help, we could only move the vehicle by a couple of centimetres. Towards morning, we had finally managed to push the 4x4 out and we continued with our journey. As we approached Indiga, we caught sight of a smart new school. According to our governor, it was to become the model school for the region. We were not able to work there, unfortunately, as it’s only due to open in April this year. But we were welcomed with open arms at the cultural centre. They allocated us accommodation with a smart sofa and every comfort. Every day we enjoyed a voice, which reached us from the stage – a young man was rehearsing a concert to mark International Women’s Day on the 8 March. It turned out that he had come to the village to build that very school, had met a young woman and decided to stay permanently. You couldn’t help but fall in love with Indiga. A place forgotten by God, located on the shore of the Barents Sea with tremendous views of the river. Only here can you cross a wooden suspension bridge and take part in the famous Festival of Smelt. On the Indiga River, dwellings of ancient man have been found and local people are always finding archaeological objects. Photo by Nenetskiy Zapovednik Throughout our travels with the exhibitions to the remote villages of the NAO, this trip left a deep impression in our hearts. We would like to express huge thanks to everyone who was involved with our expedition. These diaries were written by Marina Samoilov and edited by Yulia Bogomolova from the Nenetskiy Zapovednik. The travelling exhibition was called the 'History of the Bewick's Swan' and aimed to raise awareness about the species and its wetland home. It was created by the Nenetskiy Zapovednik, the Nenets Museum of Local Lore and WWT. It visited four settlements in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug (NOA) region between 8 and 22 February 2020. The Swan Champions of the Russian Arctic A community of passionate individuals who are engaging scientists, hunters and young people in initiatives to protect endangered birds from illegal hunting. Find out more
Spring has sprung and the Bewick’s swans are making excellent progress on their migration back to their breeding grounds in the Russian Arctic!
Internationally coordinated censuses of the Northwest European Bewick’s swan population have been undertaken across the swans’ European wintering range at approximately 5-year intervals since 1984, with the next census scheduled for the weekend of 11/12 January 2020. During the early years of the study numbers increased steadily, reaching a peak of 29,780 birds in January 1995, but then declined markedly to 18,057 swans counted in January 2010 before showing a partial recovery to 20,149 recorded in January 2015. Concern regarding the 39% drop in numbers between 1995 and 2010 resulted in Bewick’s swan experts from across the flyway coming together to develop an International Species Action Plan for the conservation of the population (download available here). One key action within the Action Plan is to continue monitoring changes in population size through the 5-yearly international Bewick’s swan censuses, which have been undertaken in conjunction with censuses made of the migratory whooper swan populations across Europe. The internationally coordinated swan censuses not only give invaluable information on trends in numbers for each population but, by aiming to count all swans at their wintering sites, provide the total population size data used to identify sites that meet the 1% criterion for classifying sites of international importance for the species. They also describe any major shifts in site or habitat use over time, and provide a comprehensive measure of the percentage of juveniles in flocks across the wintering range. In comparison with the earlier censuses, a higher proportion of the NW European Bewick’s swan population now remains in more easterly countries (notably Germany) in mid-winter, whilst only a handful of birds migrated to Ireland (at the western edge of the range) during the 2000s compared to >1,000 wintering there at the start of the study. The next international swan census, scheduled for the weekend of 11/12 January 2020, should determine whether the partial recovery of the NW European Bewick’s swan population noted in 2015 is sustained, or if the population continues to be in decline. The results will not be evident immediately, because the National Count Coordinators have to compile and check the data sent in by their counters, but we hope to have a preliminary assessment in 2021. This will be invaluable for determining whether the goal of reversing the population decline has been met, and for informing discussions of any further actions required during the Action Plan review process in 2022. Dr Eileen Rees, Research Fellow Coordinator: AEWA Bewick’s Swan Expert GroupPhoto by Martin Birchall / WWT
Around the weekend of 14/15 December the Swan Specialist Group held a co-ordinated count in Europe to find out how many cygnets were born this year. The NW European wintering population has been declining since the mid-1990s. To try to understand this decrease, it is important to know what the population structure is. We therefore held an age count in the main wintering countries to assess breeding success for the whole population. More countries along the flyway have been involved in recent years as climate change has brought warmer winters causing birds to winter further east. Therefore, traditionally important wintering areas, like the UK and the Netherlands, are of less importance nowadays. At the moment there are still Bewick’s swans wintering in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, where previously, it was too cold to winter in December. And Germany has taken the lead when it comes to wintering numbers. So baselines are shifting very fast, which is the reason why the swans don’t flock to the UK in the big numbers that they used to. Preliminary results from the age count indicate that it is again a poor year for the reproduction of this population. In the Netherlands, the juvenile percentage is around 4% (with 2,500 birds checked), and in the UK 5% (400 birds checked), which is far too low for a sustainable population. More figures are to be collated, but the alarm bells are ringing for the population after a few years of very low recruitment. Wim Tijsen, Species Co-ordinator for the NW European Bewick’s swan (Swan Specialist Group).
With winter in full swing, many Bewick’s swans have arrived at their wintering sites in northwest Europe. WWT’s centres provide some of the most important roost sites for the swans visiting Britain, with WWT Welney alone supporting more than 30% of Europe’s total population in some recent years. The swans feed on a range of crops on the farmland around our Welney reserve, foraging in early winter on any sugar beet, potatoes, and maize that escaped the autumn harvest, before moving onto wheat, oilseed rape and pasture grass as the season progresses. However, with lots of changes in agriculture in the last few decades, are the swans still finding enough to eat on these winter feeding grounds? Numbers of Bewick’s swans seen across Europe dropped from 29,277 in 1995 to 18,000 in 2010, and WWT is leading international efforts to uncover the reasons behind this worrying decline.WWT has led two studies that investigated whether changes in food resources could be responsible for the declining Bewick’s swan numbers. In the first study, we found that the relatively small changes in the extent of each key crop in the landscape around our Welney reserve were not related to the changes in the swan counts recorded between the 1950s and 2010s. The swans did not show increased or decreased use of any particular crop type. Moreover, there was no clear trend in the Bewick's swans’ body condition (a measure of their energy reserves) over time, and the swans are still able to regain and maintain condition after arriving from their long autumn migration before embarking on the their northbound migration in the spring. Finally, swans in current winters do not have to spend more time feeding or less time resting compared with the 1970s (when the population was increasing). In the second study, we similarly found that swan body condition has not changed at any of the four WWT sites used by Bewick’s Swans since the 1960s. Taken together, our research shows that enough food resources are available to swans on their winter grounds to allow them to survive the winter and to depart for their Arctic breeding grounds in good condition. In our future research, we’ll be exploring the role that other factors, such as illegal persecution, lead poisoning, and competition with larger whooper and mute swans, might have played in altering the numbers of Bewick’s Swans that visit WWT centres in winter.Dr Kevin Wood, Principal Research Officer
WWT is well known for carrying out research to help us better understand the threats faced by swans and how we can help. In October 2018 some of our scientists travelled to Tartu in Estonia for the 6th International Swan Symposium, a global gathering of over 100 swan researchers that we helped to organise. We’re delighted that now some of the key research from that meeting has been published in a special issue of WWT’s scientific journal Wildfowl. The special issue features 11 articles, all of which are free to download and read. Current Life Members of WWT will also receive a hard copy of the journal in due course. The published articles cover a wide range of swan species and research topics, including a review of the conservation status of the world’s swans, trends in the numbers of Bewick’s and Whooper Swans in northwest Europe, as well as studies on moult migrations, breeding biology, habitat use, and more. These articles have been written by experts from across Europe, Asia, Australia, North America, and South America, offering a truly global update on swan research. Researchers aim to hold the 7th International Swan Symposium in 4-5 years’ time, but in the meantime we hope that you find all of the articles interesting.Dr Kevin Wood, Principal Research Officer
Dipping temperatures encouraged thousands more Bewick’s swans to push on with their migration through Europe over the weekend, triggering a ‘swan fall’ at Slimbridge! Numbers on the reserve jumped from 25 on Friday to 63 today which kept swan researcher Steve Heaven busy as he diligently recorded the new arrivals. Tracks of Leho (yellow), Hope (orange) and Elroy (blue). Leho, who is fitted with a transmitter, was one of many who made the most of an icy north-easterly tail wind to help her on her way. She left Hamburg on Friday evening, made a beeline for the Wadden Sea area in the Netherlands on Saturday afternoon before arriving in Norfolk by 9pm! Leho, along with thousands of others, will spend the winter on the Ouse Washes foraging on root crops, grain and pasture. The first families have now arrived at Slimbridge with nine cygnets now on site. Families often arrive a little later than pairs and singletons as the cygnets are likely to take more time on migration – these youngsters are less than three months old when they embark on a 2,500 mile journey with their parents after all! We were very surprised to see Turlough and Turlach with their four cygnets fly in yesterday (pictured at the top of the page). They first visited Slimbridge together in 2017 but Turlough (ringed 251E) arrived alone last year. Given that swans are generally very faithful to each other and often pair for life, we surmised that Turlach had met some terrible fate. Individuals may lose each other on migration during poor weather or when there is disturbance, although these separations are usually temporary with reunifications happening at wintering sites soon after. Recoupling after such a long time is rather unusual but we are very pleased that they have found each other again! Dr Julia Newth, Principal Research Officer
Swan expert Dr Julia Newth reveals what it is like being part of one of the longest studies of any single species.
The first two Bewick’s of the winter have arrived at Slimbridge wetland centre fresh from the Russian arctic! The adult male was immediately recognised by its distinctive black and yellow bill pattern as a bird named Gastro by our researcher Steve Heaven. Gastro first made an appearance at Slimbridge last winter and has remembered the migration route to make a grand return with his new mate named Roux. Both Gastro and Roux have quickly settled in and were joined by two Slimbridge stalwarts, Illyan and Nero. Nero, who is 19 years old, first visited the reserve as a yearling in 2001 and has faithfully returned most winters since. Our long-term studies have shown that Bewick’s swans are very loyal to their wintering sites. WWT’s founder, Sir Peter Scott, first noticed this when 16 of the 24 Bewick’s swans he observed from his studio window during the 1963-64 winter returned to Slimbridge the following year. This insight and the realisation that each Bewick's swan could be identified by its distinctive black and yellow bill pattern, instigated the long-term study of the swans at Slimbridge that continues today making it one of the longest running studies of a species in the world. Nero sadly lost his first mate but in 2010 repaired with Illyan. The progress of our transmitter swans, Hope, Elroy and Leho The majority of the Northwest Bewick's swan population remain further east with no more than 100 in the Netherlands at the moment (W. Tijsen). However, our transmitter swans are edging ever closer. Hope, Elroy and Leho have made it to Latvia and will likely be pushed further west with the arrival of colder weather and north-easterly winds. Have a special close up experience with the swans this winter by staying at the newly opened Bewick’ Lodge at Slimbridge. More information hereDr Julia Newth and Steve Heaven
Thousands of Bewick’s swans are on the move as they escape the arctic winter which is rapidly closing in on their breeding grounds in northern Russia.
The 1st of March is the official start of spring here in the UK but last weekend told a rather different story! The Bewick’s swans were forced to stay where they were and hunker down as an unusually late cold snap brought blizzards from the south-west.
Swan Specialist Group website We are very pleased to announce the launch of the first Wetlands International-IUCN/SSC Swan Specialist Group website! We hope that the website will provide a platform to facilitate effective communication between members and others with an interest in swan conservation and management worldwide. The Swan Specialist Group is a global network of over 400 swan specialists from 38 countries who undertake monitoring, research, conservation and management of swan populations. “Many swans cross international boundaries, so it’s only through international co-operation that we can protect them effectively. The Swan Specialist Group helps swan researchers, conservationists and international organisations to work together on joint solutions for the swans and for the important wetland habitats they rely on.” - Dr Eileen Rees, Chair of the Swan Specialist Group
I am Damien and I’m back again to talk to you about our amazing, fantastic winter visitors, the Icelandic whooper swans, and to give you an insight into my thoughts on how I feel when they spend the winter with us here in Lancashire and the epic migrations they undertake to and from their Icelandic breeding grounds every year. Damien with partner and fellow swan-spotter Emma (photo: D. Giblin) It only seems like two minutes ago that I was giving you a round up on the last season as a whole. Before I begin, let’s have a little background. I am one of the media volunteers based at WWT Martin Mere Wetland Centre in Lancashire. I am autistic. That though isn’t a totally bad thing; it’s given me a wonderful, powerful passion and love for a species that I adore, my friends from the North and my guardian angels. So sit back and let me talk to you about the migration of the whooper swans and their winter life in Lancashire. If you can imagine this, I am autistic and so autistic people often have an obsession with one specific thing; they eat, live, sleep and breathe it. Obviously I’m going to say mine is whooper swans. In the summer, I’m thinking about them on the breeding grounds in Iceland; how are they feeling about the sea crossing? Are they well? Have they got cygnets? I’m thinking about how much I can’t wait to see them. Think of it this way - I’m lost in awe, in respect and admiration for the 500 mile sea crossing, in everything they do and go through just to get here to spend the winter with us. For some people at WWT, it’s life, it’s a research project and all of that, which is fine as it’s what we do. For me, it’s oh my god, my world, my Christmas every day of the swan season.
When Croupier arrived in December without Dealer, his long-term partner of 19 years, we feared the worse. It is rare for long-term partnerships to dissolve whilst both birds are still alive and we therefore resigned ourselves to the likelihood that Dealer had not made the migration. You can therefore imagine our surprise when Dealer flew into Slimbridge this week and reunited with Croupier, some six weeks after his arrival! The Gamblers are back together! During those six weeks, we managed to catch Croupier and when we X-rayed him, discovered that he was carrying a shotgun pellet in his neck. We wondered whether the absence of Dealer indicated that she hadn’t had a similarly luck escape…. Perhaps a shooting incident somewhere along the flyway panicked the pair and caused their separation. Wild weather may also have culminated in their temporary split. This long-standing couple have reared and brought to Slimbridge 29 cygnets over the years, continuing a family dynasty that stretches back to the sixties. Croupier & Dealer reunited (by S. Heaven)