Bewick’s swans are built for long-distance journeys. For WWT's Sacha Dench, flying is not so easy... So how does Sacha’s flight compare with the epic migration of the Bewick’s?
Preparing for the journey
To prepare for Flight of the Swans, Sacha has undergone a year of intensive training. But despite this, the swans are still better equipped to start the journey.
Freshly moulted into pristine plumage, gorged on sedges, pond weeds and tundra berries, their bodies contain 24% fat by weight on lift-off. This gives them enough fuel for a long hop of 1,400km or more in one go, as they fly day and night, towards the Gulf of Finland.
The weather challenge
Like the swans, Sacha will wait, for days if necessary, to pick up a tailwind. Both are at the mercy of the elements. For Sacha, a headwind, crosswind, rain, fog and darkness rule out flying.
Although the swans often fly at night, they are three times less likely to attempt to fly if the wind is against them.
Keeping up with the Bewick’s
Autumn-migrating Bewick’s swans are on a faster track than in spring, as there’s no need to feed up on the way in preparation for breeding. They’ll complete the distance to southern England in four to six weeks.
Sacha’s journey will take her ten weeks. She will fly her paramotor for no more than three hours at a time at best, until the fuel runs out or she is physically drained. She might keep to a steady 45kmph; migrating swans power along at an average of 64-70kmph.
You can follow the progress of both Sacha and the swans throughout their flight, on our live map here:
Flying over the Tundra
If a swan needs a rest on the tundra, it can descend to bob gently on one of the pools or lakes of this treeless landscape.
Sacha cannot risk landing on water harnessed to a machine that’s twice her weight. But despite the challenge of finding a safe landing spot, Sacha will be aiming for regular food and fuel dumps.
Just like the swans, Sacha will be looking for landmarks to help with navigation, keeping to the coast, spying wetlands, keeping a wary eye out for power lines, wind turbines and other aircraft. She’ll carry a simple compass, though her metal gear might send its needle in a spin, and GPS, too.
A swan’s inbuilt technology is somewhat more sophisticated, as it follows the angle of the sun, guided by a celestial map at night, attuned throughout to the Earth’s magnetic field.
Another advantage the swans have over Sacha, is they have been this way before. Parents have taken this route south at least four times previously, and now they keep their young within calling distance on this, their maiden migration.
Food to go?
A swan’s equivalent of a human marathon runner’s pasta feast is an aquatic dish, the carbohydrate-rich rhizomes and tubers of fennel pondweed. For Sacha, it’s a plate of reindeer stew or maybe raw fish.
Year after year, the swans refuel in the same wetlands. What if these vital stopovers are trashed? What happens if a habitual wetland service station in western Europe is taken over for sport?
Sacha will seek human support, food and company on 60 stops or more; Bewick’s swans cannot abide disturbance.
By the end of her journey, Sacha will have experienced danger and hardship. In a small way, she’ll have understood, first-hand, the perils facing the birds that fly with her on their greatest voyage.
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