By the time she was a teenager, Dafila Scott could recognise the individual bill markings of every Bewick’s swan that arrived at Slimbridge each winter.
But by March each year, these visitors were leaving for their summer breeding grounds. Because few Bewick’s were ringed at that time little was known about them in the wild, how long they lived, where they went or how they bred and reared their young. What happened to them during the summer months and where exactly did they go?
A school girl scientist
It wasn’t until a chance conversation several years later that the next piece of the jigsaw fell into place, when one of Dafila’s teachers asked her what happened to the swans on their way back to Russia. They probably go to Holland, she replied – but was she sure? Her teacher offered her £200 to fund an expedition to find out. So the next spring, 16 year old Dafila set out accompanied by a leading scientist.
Within days of arriving in the Netherlands, Dafila recognised two familiar faces – or beaks - much to the surprise of the scientist, who was understandably sceptical about a schoolgirl’s ability to identify birds, purely by their beak markings.
Yellow swans attract attention
Over the following years, Dafila made further expeditions to Holland, Germany and Denmark, tracing the Bewick's each time through their beak markings.
And as news of the Slimbridge study spread, it attracted the attention of enthusiasts and researchers across northern Europe, who started their own studies of Bewick’s swans at other key points along their migration. To attract the attention of observers and aid identification of the swans, the tail and wingtips of the Bewick’s were dipped in a temporary yellow dye.
Coming together again
This autumn, 52 years after Sir Peter and Dafila Scott first started documenting the Bewick’s at Slimbridge, we’ll be bringing all these groups together again, as we fly the Bewick’s migratory route back from Russia with Flight of the Swans.
Support our pioneering conservation work by signing our petition that demands protection for this iconic bird and the vital wetlands it needs to survive