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Autumnwatch webcams: The drama of swan lake

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 22:56 UK time, Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Bewick's swan

One of Slimbridge's Bewick's swans © Chris Sperring

The Autumnwatch Live webcams are back and this time we're taking a look into the lives of an altogether different animal. From 2pm Friday 18 November live both on the web and on Red Button, Badgercam gives way to... Swancam.

We're turning our attention to and focusing our cameras on the smallest and rarest of the swans found in the British Isles, the Bewick's swan.

Bewick's swans migrate to the UK each autumn to escape the harsh winter conditions of their Siberian breeding grounds.

Around 300 of these magnificent birds make the perilous 2,000 mile trip to spend the winter at WWT Slimbridge. Winters in the UK might not feel mild to us sensitive soles but compared to Arctic Russia for these swans it's positively tropical.

At Slimbridge, the Bewick's swans have become something an iconic species. In 1964, Sir Peter Scott, son of legendary polar explorer Captain Scott, found that each individual Bewick's could be identified by the pattern of yellow and black on its bill. These patterns are unique and act like fingerprints to identify an individual.

This discovery heralded nearly 40 years of study of the species that continues to this day. Each individual observed by WWT researchers is given a name and their bill pattern is drawn and added to WWT's ever-growing database. (Video: Martin Hughes-Games explores the history of Slimbridge's Bewick's swans.)

The Bewick's not only have their own names but they have very different characters too. Take Dario for example. This year, Dario, famous for being the proverbial early bird, beat the crowds yet again to arrive first with another 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 on their epic migration. 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, so we'll be keeping a very close eye on him this year to see if he can find himself one.

It's not just Dario, there are 300 birds all with very different and intriguing characters. Join us to see how the avian soap opera plays out over the course of the next few weeks. (Meet some more future stars and see how to tell the different Bewick's apart.)

But all is not well with our Bewick's. Not only are their breeding habitats being steadily worn away by development, the birds are also targets for illegal hunters. Numbers have been on the wane in recent years at Slimbridge, from a peak of 610 counted on one day alone in January 1979 to just 300 in total now.

Over the last decade or so, there has been a worrying 46% decline in numbers wintering in the UK, making the Slimbridge population increasingly important on both the local and international stage.

pintail

Watch the comings and goings of the estuary's wildlife like this pintail © Chris Sperring

Slimbridge sits at the edge of an estuary, and with a very special remote camera trained on the other wildfowl at the centre we'll be bringing you the complete story of the estuary. You'll be able to watch the comings and goings of numerous species as the autumn spectacle of migration plays out live in front of our eyes.

The autumn migration brings large movements of passerines like redwing, song thrush, fieldfare, blackbird, chaffinch, siskin, skylark and more. Keep an eye out for geese too. Autumn sees the arrival of white-fronted, greylag, pink-footed and even barnacle geese. Wildfowl numbers are building daily at this time of year too. Pintail and pochard are the most obvious and their numbers really swell at this time of year.

The estuary provides a vital food source for the winter visitors. They need to pile on the pounds to give them enough energy to survive the long slog back to their summer breeding grounds. Estuaries like the Severn are among the most biologically productive ecosystems on the planet.

We'll see the Bewick's out on the fields alongside tens of thousands of other birds as they spend the day grazing. We'll also see them feeding back at their roost site where the Slimbridge wardens give them a helping hand with their winter weight gain. This is where things can get very interesting indeed. Bewick's are a very vocal and tactile species, watch them as they continually maintain their family groups with musical hooting and balletic gesturing.

It is not all peaceful posturing. The Rushy (the feeding lake) is a place where order and dominance must be established. We'll see a whole host of aggressive interactions as the family groups jostle for position within the pecking order.

Once again we'll have live interviews and commentary from renowned broadcaster and naturalist Chris Sperring. Chris will be chatting with a whole host of experts from Slimbridge and beyond.

And as always, we'll be on Twitter, Facebook and the Messageboard so joins us there and send us any questions you might have.

Press Red or join us on the webcams at 2pm on Friday 18 November until Sunday 27 November. We'll be live until 8pm each night with an extra special extended edition till 11pm each Friday.

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