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Estonia: a blueprint for Bewick’s conservation

The weather has slowed things down this week, but it has given the team a chance to spend some time filming and observing the swans in the migratory mecca of Estonia.

As the Flight of the Swans team arrived in Estonia, so did the snow. The cold temperatures and high winds that came with it have made it difficult for Sacha to take to the skies this week.

Still adjusting to flying the paratrike, Sacha has taken the opportunity to work on her take off and landing technique. Despite the fact that it’s her paramotor and wing adapted onto wheels, she has found it a challenging and frustrating business adjusting to what is essentially a new way of flying.

On Wednesday she crashed the paratrike as she was taking off. Fortunately there were no injuries, other than to the 360 camera attached to the trike.

“It’s been really frustrating, the whole mechanism feels different. Even though my wing, propeller and motor are all the same launching from wheels is just different," said Sacha.

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Mecca for migration

Estonia is home to some of the most important sites on the Bewick's migratory route, so the team have been able to observe and film the swans as they feed and rest after the long flight from Russia.

Sacha and the ground crew headed to Matsalu bay for a few days where they stayed with a local family. On the bay they saw around 600 Bewick’s sheltering from the cold weather.

"Within the large flock we only saw one juvenile, which could be an indication of low breeding success this season. Families do tend to migrate later than non-breeding birds, but it would still be more usual to see more juveniles in a group than just one," said Sacha.

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Matsalu National Park is the biggest nature reserve in Estonia and has been, in the past, a popular spot for trophy swan hunting. Today it is one of the most important wetland areas in Europe with around 300,000 migratory birds using it each year as a staging post during migration, including more than 10,000 Bewick's swans.

It is easy to see why Estonia is a haven for Bewick’s. The wetlands are shallow and rich in the pondweed and stoneworts that the swans like to feed on, making it the perfect place to recoup after the long flight from the arctic. For many it will be their first stopping point after setting off on migration.

Meanwhile other members of the media crew were busy filming Bewick’s in the snow on the north coast, another key staging post along the flyway. Tagged swan Charlotte is known to be in the vicinity so the team hope to catch up with her soon

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Spreading the word

Estonia is the only country along the flyway that has its own national Action Plan for Bewick’s swans in place.

The plan aims to protect the swans and the wetland habitats within Estonia that provide such important staging posts on the long migration. The target is to preserve at least 30 staging sites on coastal waters, freshwater lakes, flood plains and in agricultural areas. Together, these sites will provide food and safe roosting for 80 per cent of the total Bewick's population during migration.

Members of the conservation team from WWT Slimbridge were in Tartu earlier this month for a conference held by the Estonian University of Life Sciences and Estonian Ornithological Society. Here the Action Plan’s architect, Leho Luigujõe (yes - our tagged swan Leho is named after him), updated conservation partners on how things were progressing. They hope that the plan will be used as a blue print for other countries wishing to develop similar conservation initiatives for Bewick's and their wetland habitats.

The team also took part in a workshop for local children, organised by the Tartu Environmental Education Centre, where the kids had lots of fun face painting and kite flying.

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And the swans

It is expected that the cold weather coming across northern Europe will give the rest of the swans a nudge to get on their way, so we should see more Bewick's along the flyway soon. At the moment reports from Estonia are that there are around 3,000 there and 100 have been spotted in the Netherlands.

Our tagged Bewick's are making their way slowly along the flyway. Leho is still doing his zig-zagging backwards and forwards between Latvia and Lithuania. We think he's probably seeking out the best feeding spots from 4-5 central roost sites. Daisy Clarke is in Lithuania and Maisie is still bobbing about on Lake Pihvka, where she's been since last week. Eileen has sped down to the Finnish/Russian border. Charlotte is in Estonia.

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