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 Bewick's Swan- Fact File
Bewick's Swan
Cygnus columbianus
Winter visitor (from Siberia), mainly to England and Ireland. The Ouse Washes hold a large proportion of the 9000 or so birds that winter here.
Wetland habitats, mainly shallow lakes and slow rivers near grassy meadows. Also feed in farmland on grain stubble and root crops.
Smallest of the three British swans. Similar to Whooper Swan, but smaller, shorter-necked and more rounded head shape.
Bill pattern varies, but always shows more black than yellow (opposite in Whooper Swan).
120 - 135cm (47 - 53")

Bewick's Swan

The annual appearance of large flights of whooper swans to Welney Wildfowl Reserve is a comparatively new feature. Bewick's swans, however, have been a great attraction there for well over four decades.

This wintering habit apparently developed as a result of a movement of the birds from the Netherlands to Ireland during the latter part of the winter. At one time a migratory route through Scotland had been favoured.

Over winter up to 3600 Bewick's may appear at Welney; in some years only eight percent are juveniles. One wonders what proportion of this winter's arrivals will contain birds of the year.

Bewick's breed in the Arctic in the area surrounding the Kara Sea in northern Russia and are subject to a migratory flight of some 2500 or more miles to and from wintering grounds. The autumn migratory route passes the shores of the White Sea, the southern Baltic including the Estonian Archipelago at Matsaalu Bay, the Elbe estuary in northern Germany and the Netherlands.

Bewick's swans have been researched since it was first noticed that the yellow markings on each bird's beak are unique. Detailed drawings are made of the markings and the swans given names. They normally pair for life and some individuals are consistently successful in breeding.

Cygnets stay with their parents all winter and the family group is sometimes joined by offspring of previous years. Family groups of up to 15 are on record.

Much has been learned concerning weather effects on swan movements. Rapid changes may prompt long journeys. One Bewick's family left Slimbridge in January on a mild south-westerly wind and rapidly reached the Elbe estuary.

Then the temperature suddenly dropped and snow began falling. The disillusioned swan family reappeared at Welney; then, even more surprisingly, at Slimbridge the following day.

It was calculated they would need to stay three weeks at Slimbridge to regain weight lost on the abortive first leg of their migration involving them in the return trip to Germany. And this was just what they did.

Bewick's swans are prone to ceaseless wanderlust. Stewart Linsell, of Ludham, has forwarded a remarkable schedule listing the movements of seven birds each carrying a numbered neck collar. One swan, after being marked in the Gulf of Korovinskaia in September 1992, has been reported on 23 subsequent dates. Sightings range from the Netherlands, Estonia and Germany.

In this country 365P has been reported on the Isle of Sheppey, the Ouse Washes and the upper Thurne. Bewick's number 368P, after passing through the Netherlands and Germany during the early spring of 1993, then spent at least eight weeks at Welney from late October 1993 before being detected on Halvergate Levels over Christmas 1993.

A year's silence followed until a report again at Welney at the very beginning of this year followed by mid-February sightings at Ludham and Halvergate.

By Michael J. Seago

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Copyright Information

  • Article: © Eastern Counties Newspapers Group
  • Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge © Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.
  • Other material: © Birds Of Britain