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Autumnwatch webcams: Meet the stars of the (swancam) show

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 17:49 UK time, Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Bewick's swans at Slimbridge

The swans' aggressive interactions as family groups jostle for position in the pecking order ©James Lees/WWT

Our webcams are back this Friday live from the Bewick’s swan lake at WWT Slimbridge. So why have we chosen the Bewick's? When we're deciding what species to focus the cameras on we have three criteria: concentration (can our remote pan-and-tilt cameras capture the action?), spectacle (does the subject matter look great?) and character (can we follow individual's stories?). The Bewick's tick all three of these.

Okay, so we can't film their amazing migration from Russia, but once they've arrived at Slimbridge we have them! They spend most of their day in an area not much bigger than a football pitch. Our cameras will be there to follow their every move. And spectacle? Once we're live, we'll let you be the judge of that.

But for these swans the biggest sell and the reason we're so excited about them is the individual stories we can tell. Thanks to 40 years of research by the WWT we already know the life story of many of them. Some of the families are long established dynasties and have been coming back to the lake in the Rushy Pen for an amazing 50 years. What's more, we can identify each individual by the pattern of yellow and black on its bill.

There are 90 swans at Slimbridge at the moment but that number should swell to close to 300 by the time the webcast finishes on 27 November.

There are some real characters so who's who?

Firstly, how do you know it's a Bewick's?

Bewick's swans are strikingly similar in appearance to whooper swans. It's is very easy to confuse the two. The best way to tell them apart is by taking a close look at the bill. The Bewick's swans have fewer yellow markings on their bills and the markings end behind the nostrils.

On whooper swans, in contrast, the yellow extends to a point beyond the nostrils, giving the pattern a wedge-like appearance. Bewick's are also smaller than the whoopers and in flight have much faster wingbeats.

How can you tell individual Bewick's swans apart?

different bills on Bewick's swans

Take a close look at the beak: (L-R) 'yellownebs', 'pennyfaces' and 'blacknebs' ©Colin Butters/WWT

There are three distinct types of bill pattern: 'yellownebs', 'pennyfaces' and 'blacknebs'. These are the first clues to look for.

If the yellow portion of the bill stretches in a continuous band across the bill to link the yellow patches on either side it's 'yellowneb'. In other Bewick's the centre line of the upper part of the bill is black from the feathering to the tip of the forehead, these guys are know as 'blacknebs'. The third group are 'pennyfaces', the front of the bill is black from the brow-line to the tip, but a patch of yellow (the 'penny') occurs in the middle.

Once you've narrowed it down to one of the three groups you can begin to examine the unique bill pattern of each individual. This isn't easy. It takes some time to get your eye in but once you have it can open up a world of information about the individuals.

Who's who in the 'Rushy'?

Dario, the Bewick's swan

Dario ©Colin Butters/WWT

Dario (blackneb): Famed for being a routinely early bird, Dario beat the crowds yet again this year, arriving first with an adult and two yearlings.

Dario has been the first to arrive in four of the past six winters and as a Slimbridge stalwart, will have guided the other birds. Now 12 years old, he's been wintering at Slimbridge since 1999, when he first arrived as a cygnet with his parents, Raptor and Goodall. He's been without a mate for the past couple of years. Watch this space to see if he can find himself a partner this year.

The gambling family of Bewick's

The gambling family ©Nic Cotterell/WWT

The gambling family: Pair Croupier and Dealer are back at Slimbridge and this time they have brought with them five cygnets, continuing one of the longest family lineages at Slimbridge and demonstrating the extraordinary site fidelity of this species.

Croupier's family tree is extensive. His grandparents, Caroline and Nijinsky, first visited Slimbridge in 1969 and two years later brought back two cygnets, one of which was Croupier's mother, Casino. Casino became a Slimbridge faithful, visiting for 26 years of her life. For many years she was the oldest bird to have ever visited the reserve. This record has now been surpassed by Winterling, who will be a mighty 29 years-old if she returns this winter!

Now 20, Croupier has been with mate Dealer since 1998. Over the years, the couple have brought numerous cygnets back to Slimbridge with them but this year is by far their largest brood.

Bewick's swans Saruni and Sarune

Sarini and Sarune ©James Lees/WWT

The 'divorcee': Two winters ago Saruni surprised the WWT researchers and made the headlines when she appeared to separate from old mate Sarindi. Both swans arrived with new partners during that winter and had little to do with one another. It was only the second time in more than 40 years of WWT research into 4,000 swan pairs that a 'divorce' had been recorded. Saruni and her new partner Sarune, arrived recently with four cygnets.

Bewick's swans usually have very strong loyalties to one another and tend to mate for life, although they will 're-pair' if their partner dies. The longest partnership ever recorded was between Limonia and Laburnum who stayed together for 21 years.

Grounds for Saruni and Sarindi's divorce remain unclear although such an unusual event may be connected to a lack of breeding success.

Bewick's swan Teabag

Teabag ©Colin Butters/WWT

Teapot and Teabag: In contrast to the 'divorcee', the arrival of Teapot and Teabag earlier this week for their 16th winter together has restored the researchers' faith in long-term partnerships. Over the years, the 'tea party' has brought back 14 cygnets, some of which still visit the reserve.

The Bewick's swan Crinkly

Crinkly ©James Lees/WWT

Crinkly: Crinkly is the swan that beat the odds to return to Slimbridge five times, despite having a deformity in her neck making her quite un-aerodynamic. Sadly Crinkly made the news when she failed to return to Slimbridge two years ago. But the Slimbridge staff are hoping she's has switched wintering sites after finding a mate and that she will return again one day. So will she make her long-awaited comeback this year? Keep your eyes peeled.

These are the key characters but of course there are many more swans on the lake, each with their individual stories and characteristics. Who knows whose story will capture our imaginations this autumn.

Join us live on the web and on BBC Redbutton from 2pm, Friday 18 November to see how the family dynamics evolve and how the dramas of daily life on the lake unfold. You can also follow the story on WWT Slimbridge's Bewick's diary.

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