The Epic 4000-Mile Flight of Swans to Over-Winter in the UK

Discover the five best places to see these graceful birds after their gruelling migration from the Arctic.

By Vinny Crump
Published 16 Nov 2017, 08:26 GMT
Bewick's swans flying at Slimbridge, Gloucestershire.
Bewick's swans flying at Slimbridge, Gloucestershire.
Photograph by WWT

They swoop in each November, harbingers of winter and apogees of wildness. Britain’s Bewick’s swans have survived a remarkable journey: 4,000 miles from the freezing tundra of Arctic Russia.

It’s epic. These swans don’t travel by instinct, like other migrant birds; they first have to be shown the way by their parents. Some individuals have been returning to the UK’s waterlands for 25 years, and since each has a unique patterning on its beak, the wardens at wildfowl oases like Slimbridge, in Gloucestershire, can trace their stories. It helps that Bewick’s mate for life: over the last half century Slimbridge has welcomed 4,000 pairs – and known only two divorces.

The swans are the stars, but there are marvels aplenty at the nation’s Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust reserves this winter. Here's where it all happens…

This Bewick's swan has flown into London Wetland Centre.
Photograph by WWT

SLIMBRIDGE, Gloucestershire

Slimbridge in winter is the Serengeti of the skies. The first Bewick’s swan of the season touched down on 8th November, and hundreds will follow – the reserve’s 4pm feeds (complete with warden’s commentary) can be volatile stuff. These are streetfighting swans, and what you’re watching is the new season of an avian reality show, full of hissing and charging as the birds joust for supremacy. Slimbridge has a vast supporting cast, too, including big flocks of golden plovers – ace formation fliers that swirl like smoke above the evocative acres of marshland, mudflats and ponds.

Bewick's swans display aggressive behaviour at WWT Slimbridge, Gloucestershire.
Photograph by WWT

WELNEY, Cambridgeshire

The Ouse Washes host Britain’s most spectacular winter swan symposium. As many as 9,000 Bewick’s and whooper swans wing in to join assorted geese, ducks and waders – not to mention the owls and peregrines that snack on them. Arrive before dusk at the WWT’s Welney reserve and you may see the swans make a silhouetted swoop out of the sunset: the feeding frenzy begins around 3.30pm.

MARTIN MERE, Lancashire

Pink-footed geese are the wild geese of your imagination, arrowing overhead in immaculate V-formation while honking to high heaven. Many thousands overwinter at Martin Mere, beside whooper swans from Iceland, pintails, lapwings, snipe and more. It makes for a definite pecking order at the daily feeds (3 and 3.30pm).

CAERLAVEROCK, Dumfriesshire

The barnacle geese of Spitsbergen really love their winter sailing holidays on the Solway Firth. Up to 25,000 growling, barking birds zap into the saltmarshes every morning from their sandbank roosts, and Caerlaverock stages daily whooper swan feeds too (11am and 2pm), outside its heated observatory.

A Bewick's swan stretches its wings after its exhausting 4,000-mile flight back to the UK from Arctic Russia.
Photograph by WWT

CASTLE ESPIE, Northern Ireland

The tranquil foreshore of Strangford Lough is home to a multi-coloured air show of ducks and waders in winter – look out especially for the synchronised aerobatics of knots, which flash silver as they twist on the wing. Go this month and you’ll get to see the reserve’s world-exclusive flock of 15,000 light-bellied brent geese, too, bumptious little birds arrived from the Canadian Arctic.

Bewick's swans, safely home for winter.
Photograph by WWT
Read More

You might also like

10 amorous animals that mate for life
A love affair: Zebra style
Watch how the world's biggest spider immobilizes its prey – and keeps predators at bay
This creature truly deserves the name 'jaws'... and it doesn't live in the sea
Watch the bizarre and bloody way horned lizards have to repel predators

Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Newsletter
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2021 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved