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Start of winter brings first 'swanfall' at WWT Slimbridge

Posted on 09 Dec 2019

The start of December, and a dip in temperatures, has seen the first ‘swanfall’ at WWT Slimbridge, with more than 50 majestic Bewick’s swans arriving at the end of the final leg of their migration. This year’s ‘swanfall’ was bang on time, as it traditionally heralds the beginning of winter, which officially started on 1st December.

The arrival of the Bewick’s is spurred on by the onset of colder weather on the continent, and their need for access to ice-free wetlands. North-easterly tail winds also help them on their way. The appearance of so many swans in one go is called a ‘swanfall’, and marks the final stage in their epic 4000 km journey from Arctic Russia to the comparatively warmer weather of the UK. This year’s first ‘swanfall’ comes more than five weeks later than Gastro and Roux, the first Bewick’s of the season, who arrived on 27th October.

Most Bewick's swans form pair-bonds during their breeding season in Arctic Russia, and often pair for life. They migrate in their family groups, with the parents adapting their pace to that of their cygnets, some of whom would have been just three months old at the start of the migration. This means that families often arrive at their final overwintering home later than pairs and singletons.

One family who have arrived in the ‘swanfall’ is By Brook and Keynell, who have been a pair since 2010. Swans develop close family bonds, and young birds sometimes associate with their parents into adulthood, as is the case this year, as they have been joined by one of their offspring, Allington, who was born in 2018. By Brook first wintered at Slimbridge as a cygnet himself in 2000, and together with Keynell, they have raised 13 cygnets over the years.

A new family this year are Turlough and Turlach, who have brought their four cygnets with them. They first visited in 2017, but when Turlough arrived on her own last year, it was assumed that Turlach had not made the migration, as it is rare for long-term partnerships to dissolve whilst both swans are still alive. The reunification of the pair on the lake after such a long time apart was therefore unexpected, but very welcome news.

Swan Research Assistant, Steve Heaven who helps conserve the Bewick’s swans, said:

“The arrival of the first ‘swanfall’ is always a fantastic spectacle, and we now have over 70 here, with more arriving each day. We record each returning swan, noting the unique black and yellow bill markings of every new arrival, and give first-time visitors a name at the same time.

“We are still on the look-out for some of our regulars, including Croupier, who has been a favourite of visitors here at Slimbridge for almost three decades. We’re anxiously keeping our fingers crossed that he might still arrive, but in the meantime, we’re delighted to see his son, Croupie, back on the pond, along with his mate, Wheel.

“The arrival of the ‘swanfall’ presents visitors to Slimbridge a wonderful opportunity to see these amazing birds up-close from the comfort of the Peng observatory, during our feeds at 4pm each day. Whilst visitors are inside in the warm, either me or one of my colleagues walks along the edge of the Rushy, feeding the swans and other birds, providing a running commentary as darkness descends.

Steve and his colleagues at Slimbridge have been using the unique yellow and black beak pattern to identify and record individual Bewick’s swans for more than 50 years. Over that time, the comings and goings of individuals and family dynasties has led to over 10,000 swans being recorded. Started by Sir Peter Scott, this meticulous and vital process continues today, thanks to the generous support of players of People’s Postcode Lottery.

For an extra special experience, visitors are invited to get an insight into what goes on at Slimbridge after the centre closes, when they can experience an amazing commentated floodlit evening swan feed, followed by a delicious two course meal in the Kingfisher Kitchen restaurant. These Evening with the Swans events are now running every Friday and Saturday evening until 8 February 2020.

For information on swans and where to see them, or to read the swan team’s blog about the Slimbridge swans and their conservation work, visit here.