29 March 2002

ESCAPINGSWANNY RIGOUR

The birds may have flown… but they have left their "finger-

prints" in the Cotswolds as Michael Charity discovered

IT WAS nearly 60 years ago during the winter of 1946 at the outset of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge, Glos, that world famous naturalist and avid ornithologist, the late Sir Peter Scott, recorded the first Bewicks swans arriving on the Severn Estuary near his home in the riverside village.

It seems they were attracted by the call of his resident whistling swans. So the following season he moved his tame whistlers on to the Rushy Pen, a vast safe haven lake that was home to the growing population of wild birds under his wing. The ruse worked, that winter the alluring whistlers called in further groups of migrating Bewicks on their annual vacation and in growing numbers, to the feeding grounds and relative warmth of Gloucestershire.

They were now destined to become a regular feature, once-yearly trippers making their way to a veritable warm water Cotswold Costa Brava in this fascinating West Country wildlife area.

Today, "Swan Lake" as Sir Peter christened the Rushy Pens, becomes a "holiday resort" from October to March, to almost 400 site-faithful Bewicks who make the 2500 mile journey from the frozen Russian tundra each year.

In 1964 with the Bewick colony at Slimbridge growing, Sir Peter started logging the yearly arrivals and began his long-term research programme into studying their family habits, life history and reproductive success. To this end he was very much aided by a unique natural feature he discovered exclusive to Bewicks – no two birds had the same bill pattern. In every case the Bewicks swan has its own personal "fingerprint", created in the markings on the striking black-and-yellow beaks.

With his sketch-pad and telescope, Sir Peter drew the bill patterns and gave names to every Bewicks swan which alighted on "Swan Lake". In this way he slowly created a profile, almost the equivalent of a police dossier, on the species during each wintry visit to Gloucestershire.

The result of his studies can be seen on a large oil painting hanging at the Slimbridge centre, depicting over 400 Bewicks he "finger- printed" right up to his final years.

From these observations it has been possible to establish that the world famous Lancelot spent 23 winters at

Slimbridge, the last recorded visit being in 1985. The record holder for a returning swan to the sanctuary is 27 years, held by Casino who sadly has not been sighted since 1997. This season Jive has covered the nigh-on 3000 mile flight to Europe for the 24th time.

Why swans cease returning is impossible to tell. Many die from natural causes; accidents with power cables and pylons take their toll. Although protected through their migratory range over Estonia, Lithuania and northern Germany, they also have to run the gauntlet of hunters.

Now at the WWT Slimbridge, the programme created by Sir Peter continues in the capable hands of a former WWT volunteer, Sue Carman. A dedicated ornithologist, Sue has been involved in the work for the past 10 years.

From the comfort of her observatory/office she carries on the swan recording in the time honoured way of sketch book and telescope, seeking out the tell tale signs that mark the safe return of a previous years Bewicks swan.

These studies have provided the centre with a vast and valuable catalogue of data on the breeding behaviour and feeding ecology of these intrepid sky-borne creatures. Travellers who visited our lands seeking warmth and foreign cuisine long before package tours were thought of. Proving its all strictly for the birds.

Sue Carman "finger-prints" the swans today (top) in the same style as Sir Peter Scotts records (above).

One of the "regulars": Bewicks swans fly to Slimbridge each October but by late March the swans will start flying back to the Russian tundra.