A North East wetland reserve warden has joined an international expedition to help save one of the world’s most iconic swan species.
David Dinsley from WWT Washington Wetland Centre visited Arctic Russia in August to monitor Bewick’s swans as part of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust’s (WWT’s) long-term study of this critically endangered bird, started by founder Sir Peter Scott in the 1960s.
The 30-year-old, from Cramlington, was selected to join WWT’s Monitoring Assistant Kane Brides on the 2000-mile annual trip to catch and ring the birds at their remote tundra breeding grounds.
Re-sightings of these ringed swans as they journey back across Europe to over-winter in the UK gives researchers information on the movements, site fidelity, breeding success and survival of individual birds – vital data which helps answer important questions about their population decline.
“The aim of the trip was to catch and ring as many birds as possible in two weeks, to increase the number of individuals that can be identified in the field. We travelled by boat to areas frequented by Bewick’s swans and in total tagged 60 Bewick’s, ten of which had been ringed before, as well as nine mute swans and five whoopers.”
“As well as ringing the adult and yearling birds, we noted 24 cygnets and 10 families, compared to just one cygnet in 2017 – a good early indication of a successful breeding season this year.”
An avid wild camper, David felt well-prepared for the challenge of living outdoors on the tundra, seven hours away from the nearest town with only a fisherman’s hut for shelter during the region’s terrible thunderstorms. But to gain essential knowledge for the work he was to do in the field, he took part in local swan catches and learned how to determine a bird’s gender – a process known as vent sexing.
“To prepare for the physical process of handling the Bewick’s swans I helped Andy Rickeard from Northumbria Ringing Group with the catching and ringing of mute swans in Newcastle and Northumberland, which was a first for me and as mute swans are much bigger than Bewick’s, it was great practice, he said.
“I also vent sexed barnacle geese in the collection at WWT Washington – again, a different species but same principle!
“Behind-the-scenes I had several rounds of vaccinations, made a trip to London to sign my visa off and plans were put in place to make sure my work here on the reserve at WWT Washington was covered in my absence; a big team effort that I’d like to thank everyone for.”
And after two weeks of digital detox, washing in lakes, navigating rough seas, sheltering from thunderstorms and witnessing incredible wildlife spectacles, David is very grateful for the opportunity he was given to help make a difference to the future conservation of the Bewick’s swan species.
“Personally, I’ve achieved something I really wanted to do; contribute to a long-term conservation strategy and experience catching and working with wild swans out in the field. I’m proud to be part of the ongoing efforts to continue Sir Peter Scott’s legacy.
“I wasn’t, but it felt like I was on the top of the world. It was so vast and open that you could literally see the weather patterns changing around you.
“Not many Brits, or even Russians, get to go up there. As a human, sharing the territory of such incredible wildlife – not only Bewick’s swans but Arctic fox, white-tailed sea eagles, black-throated divers, hen harriers, tundra bean geese and coypu to name just a few – was an amazing experience I’ll not forget.”
This difficult expedition would not have been possible without the help and active participation of Russian colleagues from the Nenetsky Zapovednik, who have been protecting this important breeding and moulting area for the swans and many other waterbird species since the area was designated as a National Nature Reserve (known as a “zapovednik”) by the Russian Government in 1997.