Swan face recognition

P1040764I recently visited Slimbridge WWT in Gloucestershire, mainly to see the Bewick’s Swans which overwinter there. I live closer to the WWT site at Martin Mere, where Whooper Swans from Iceand gather in wintertime, but to see the Bewick’s (pronounced like the car – Buick, not Bee-wick) who come from the Russian tundra, was to be a treat.

What is fascinating about these swans is that they all have different and distinctive black  markings on their beaks, so it’s possible to ID individuals, note their distinctive beak patterns and study their migratory movements to and from Slimbridge each autumn when they arrive. Some are long-standing visitors, returning every year.

Sir Peter Scott, who founded the WWT, realised that each Bewick’s had an individual beak pattern. He began sketching and monitoring the beaks of visiting Bewick’s and named each individual so they could be greeted like old friends dropping in for the winter. This developed into an ongoing, long term study of the Bewick’s.The science aside, I was capitvated by these beautiful swans, even more so because they are all different and can be recognised by face, so I spent a lot of time with my binoculars looking at the different details on their beaks. How long it would take to begin knowing each individual I dread to think – memorising the subtleties of the different beak patterns would be a real challenge. Maybe something you just have to get your eye attuned to as you develop the skill.

A bit like remembering faces of people you’ve met, but a lot more challenging!


It’s just possible to see the differences in the beak patterns of these three Bewick’s, but the devil’s in the detail.


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