It’s a tale of epic distances and extreme temperatures, of non-stop endurance flights across some of the world’s last wilderness regions.
After flying nearly 4,000km in just under 10 weeks, Leho, the third of our GPS tagged Bewick’s swans to make it back to the UK, has arrived at WWT Welney. This is her story.
We start in Naryn Mar, in the high latitudes of Russia’s far north. It’s here in the arctic tundra that Leho has spent the summer along with thousands of other Bewick’s.
So what's the attraction?
Frozen and inhospitable in the winter, it’s only as temperatures rise, that the tundra’s secret is revealed. As the ice melts, frozen wetlands return to life and it’s their plant life, so rich in protein, that’s the big attraction for the Bewick’s that migrate here each year.
Leho’s GPS data from the summer shows her flying backwards and forwards across these wetlands, feeding and roosting in this, one of the most isolated places in the world.
But summers are short and last only a few months. By September winter is on its way and with the onset of sub zero temperatures, Leho’s migration is triggered.
The migration starts
And so at six in the morning on the 26th September, Leho sets off.
Ahead of her lies an epic migration. It will take her thousands of kilometres over the vast expanses of the arctic tundra, on over the forested taiga, through the Baltic countries, across Europe and eventually back to the UK.
She makes the crossing of the tundra in just one non-stop flight. By 6 o’ clock the following evening we pick her up, roosting on a small pond on the edges of the taiga forest. In 36 hours, she’s covered 831 km. But Leho only stays here long enough for a short rest. Like many Bewick’s, it’s Arkhangelsk with its wetlands rich in aquatic weeds, that’s her ultimate destination for her first extended stop. So she pushes on, flying north, and arrives at Arkhangelsk, by the shores of the White Sea by midday on the 28th September.
For our human swan, this section of the journey takes over two weeks and requires Sacha to stop every three hours to refuel and recuperate.
A night flight
But Leho is on a mission and within the week is airborne again. Like many Bewick’s she chooses to fly at night, guided by a celestial map.
Setting off in the early hours of the 4th October, this extraordinary bird flies on over Russia, across Estonia and on into Lativa. She makes it all the way to the Lithuanian border, where she finally touches down later that evening. In just 15 hours she’s flown a staggering 1,337km, averaging a speed of 89km/hour.
A well earned rest
Understandably Leho now takes nearly a month’s break from her migration to build up strength for her remaining journey.
Gone is the taiga forest, replaced by open farmland. Our statellite data shows Leho making numerous short flights, nipping backwards and forwards across the Latvian/Lithuanian border. WWT’s swan expert Julia Newth offers this explanation:
“Every evening Bewick’s often return to open water to roost where they feel safe from land predators. Leho’s numerous short flights show her moving between open farmland where she is feeding during the day and two ponds where she is spending the night.”
Caught on camera
With 13 Ramsar sites, it’s no surprise that Poland is Leho’s next choice for an extended stopover. After a relatively short 300 km flight from Latvia, flying the most direct route across the Baltic sea, she arrives the evening of November 7th and stays here for nearly three weeks.
And it's here she’s caught on camera feeding in a field just by the German border by our wildlife crew. Who can find her in this picture?
A Bewick’s Meccca
But winter is coming and dropping temperatures nudge her ever westwards. By the afternoon of the 28th November, we pick her up flying over Germany and by the following morning she’s enjoying Dutch hospitality. And she’s not alone. Around two thirds of the Bewick’s population spend their winter here.
And so she joins 4,000 Bewick’s at the key Ramsar site of Lake Lauwersmeer and neighbouring Lake Drontermeer. Co-incidentally, the same place our other tagged swan Maisie spent two weeks earlier in November.
It’s the abundance of aquatic vegetation here that makes it such a popular spot for Bewick’s. Ensuring the protection of these essential wetlands is one of the most important goals of Flight of the Swans and our Dutch partners.
While many swans choose to spend their winters in Holland, for Leho, nothing can beat the attraction of spending Christmas at WWT Welney. So there’s just one more flight to go. On the evening of 2nd December she flies across the North Sea making landfall 6 hours later near Orford in Suffolk. She flies on and arrives at Welney at 4 in the morning on the 3rd December.
Her final flight takes 9 hours and covers 300 km, bringing her total migration to 3,800 km.