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The Netherlands: a Bewick’s mecca

As Sacha begins to turn her thoughts towards the challenge of crossing the Channel and arriving home, our first tagged swan arrived back at WWT Slimbridge on Thursday.

After a week resting and feasting on the water plants in Lake Veluwemeer, Maisie set off fully fueled for the final push at 6pm. She flew throughout the night, crossed the North Sea and arrived in Norfolk at midnight. She stopped off once during her flight. After a well-deserved sleep and some time feeding, she took to the skies again and arrived at WWT Slimbridge by lunchtime, 3.5 hours later.

Earlier in the week a Dutch birder, who has been following the project, went out to see her and take photos – he reported that she seemed to be single but a dominant character in the flock. Sacha tried to catch up with her briefly but with thousands of birds sleeping in a flock, heads tucked under wing, she was impossible to spot.

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Keeping busy

With school visits, conservation meetings and press appearances to attend during their time in the Netherlands the Flight of the Swans team have a lot to do before heading home. On Wednesday night Sacha appeared on popular TV chat show RTL Late Night, along with Dutch celebrities, to talk about the Flight of the Swans expedition and the plight of the swans. Such an appearance got lots of feedback through social media.

The team hope to be in Calais next week ready for Sacha to make her record-breaking Channel crossing on the paramotor. However, it requires a bit more organisation and preparation for a human to cross the channel than it does the swans. A water landing for swans is no big deal – if adverse conditions arise they can land and float for a while. For a paramotor you need a bit more preparation to ensure you survive a water landing, in case of engine failure.

Sacha also needs additional safety equipment, a support boat, to accompany her and protocols to cover all eventualities over the busiest waterway in the world. When she lands back on British soil she will become the first woman to have flown across the channel in a paramotor. Whilst the crossing is a small distance compared to the distance she has already flown, it will be one of the most challenging parts of her journey so far.

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Migration hot spot

Many of the swans are also enjoying the Dutch hospitality - around two-thirds of the entire world population spends the winter in the Netherlands.

There are currently around 4,500 Bewick’s in the Netherlands and 4,000 of those are feeding and resting on Lake Lauwersmeer. This key Ramsar site is a hotspot for Bewick’s – and many other migratory birds - along the flyway.

 

You are what you eat

One of the reasons the Bewick’s love Lake Lauwersmeer is because it has an abundance of the aquatic vegetation on which they like to feed. Since its closure from the Wadden Sea in the 1970s it has become one of the most important sources of aquatic vegetation for the Bewick’s in the Netherlands – hence its popularity when the birds arrive in the country following their autumn migration from the Russian arctic.

Until the 1930s many places in the Netherlands were considered outstanding areas for Bewick’s swans because of the quantity and accessibility of aquatic vegetation found at these lowland sites. These days, however, the pondweeds and stoneworts are less abundant in several of the important wetlands used by swans migrating to Britain and Ireland, and also by the thousands of swans that remain in the Netherlands overwinter.

Where the lakes were once full of clear water and large strands of aquatic vegetation, a change in water quality in the ditches and streams feeding into the lakes during the 60s and 70s resulted in some being unable to sustain the number of birds that they once did. More recently, efforts by the Dutch authorities to improve water quality has resulted in sites such as the Veluwemeer again receiving large numbers of swans, with over 4,000 birds seen feeding on stoneworts in the lake during early November. Sites used by the Bewick’s Swans in the Netherlands are also protected areas, but ensuring optimal management of these essential wetlands remains one of the most important goals being taken forward by Dutch partners of the Flight of the Swans project.

You can help too  sign our petition  

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Digging for clues

The swans also feed on the grasslands around the lakes, pecking at potatoes, sugar beet and cereal crops, but for them this may be the equivalent of fast food. It’s the pondweed tubers and stonewort algae found in the lakes – their natural habitat – that they seem to prefer, for keeping their health in tip-top condition.

Members of the conservation team from WWT Slimbridge attended events hosted by our Netherland partners last week at Lake Lauwersmeer. One of the things the event focused on was tuber sampling. This will provide updated information for those attending the “mini symposium” on recent changes in the abundance and accessibility to the swans of the pondweed tubers growing in Lake Lauwersmeer. The results could be another clue to solving the mystery of the Bewick’s decline and changes in distribution in Northwest Europe.

 

The Swans

Hope is on the North coast of Latvia, Eileen continues to fly further north than the others and is in Oland, an island off the coast of Sweden. Leho is still in Poland. Maisie is at WWT Slimbridge and Daisy Clarke is still at WWT Welney.

And elsewhere… The mild temperatures have meant that there are still large numbers of Bewick’s swans in the Baltic states, 4,500 in the Netherlands.

In the UK, there are around 300 Bewick’s at WWT Welney and at WWT Slimbridge there are 59 adults with 12 cygnets. There are also 16 adults with 5 cygnets on Blagdon lake in Somerset. We look forward to welcoming our human swan home soon too.