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Follow the journey all the way from Russia to the UK.
As part of the wildlife crew we chased around most of the Baltic States trying to follow swan related leads. This took us to Ramsar wetland sites like Matsalu Bay, Estonia, Lake Lubans, Latvia and Nemuno Delta, Lithuania. During that time we were exposed to rapid seasonal changes as winter swept across the region in a blinding white fury.
As Sacha continued to push south, racing against the encroaching weather, we continued with the closed cab L200 moving from location to location, camping and filming a stone’s throw away from the car. The ability to have all of our equipment in our ‘go anywhere’ vehicle meant that we were self-sufficient. With a little jet boil stove, we were even able to wild camp on a remote Estonian island as we continued to follow the Bewick’s migration south.
At some point earlier in the expedition, I have to admit I had wondered if the heavy-duty tyres were overkill for this project. I had to swallow my words as their extra tread and four-wheeled drive meant that driving through a blizzard was no trouble for our L200. Importantly this meant that we were never delayed by the weather, which was vital for our strict and stressful schedule.
From using the roof as a filming and scouting platform, to downloading 6K film footage to our hard drives in the boot, our vehicles were our all-encompassing vessels as the search for swans continued. It was the ability to peel off from the rest of the team and focus on swans that allowed us to gain beautiful imagery of nature from three truly stunning countries.
The challenges of migration have been brought firmly to our attention this week with news of the death of Charlotte, one of our tagged Bewick's.
Charlotte has been part of WWT's tracking programme for the last two years and has given the team an invaluable window into their world.
WWT researchers have been tracking her progress online alongside Sacha and the other tagged swans. Both Sacha and Charlotte faced the challenges of bad weather in Estonia, but Charlotte never made the onward journey.
Members of the ground crew ventured back to Estonia where Charlotte had last been spotted to try and find her body but bad weather eventually forced them to abandon their search and so we will never know for sure what happened to her.
“This is such sad news. Looking at a beautiful Bewick’s swan, you don’t appreciate how incredibly tough they need to be to complete this gruelling journey. I have an engine and a support team and, even so, it’s without a doubt the most physically and emotionally challenging thing I’ve ever done," said Sacha.
To read more about the dangers facing Bewick’s read our ‘Mystery of the Dying Swans’ blog here.
In happier news, we were very excited to see our first tagged swan, Daisy Clarke, arrive at WWT Welney on Wednesday.
If you remember it was Daisy Clarke that Sacha found sleeping on a fish pond in Lithuania. She has covered around 1,386km in a week.
We now have 30 Bewick's back at WWT Slimbridge. Among those to arrive this week were old friends Croupier and Dealer.
We have known Croupier for 25 years now - he first arrived at Slimbridge as a cygnet with his parents Casino and Punter in 1992 - and as such a well-established bird he and his mate Dealer usually rule the roost. Between them they have brought 32 cygnets back to Slimbridge over the years.
Hope was last picked up on our tracker outside of Estonia, over the Baltic Sea heading for Latvia. Eileen seems to be taking a more northerly route and is now in Sweden. Leho is in Poland and Maisie is now in Germany.
You can follow their progress live on our expedition map
After a challenging week last week, with the weather making flying difficult, this week Sacha has been flying the paratrike and the team have now crossed Poland and are in Germany.
In Poland, Sacha flew with paramotor partners, Iwona Kwiatkowska and Krzysztof Wieczorek, from Polish paramotoring team, Black Wings.
With 13 Ramsar sites, Poland is an important area for Bewick's and other migrating birds. So while she was there, Sacha and the ground crew attended events to talk about the expedition and met with local press, conservationists and dignitaries to discuss the importance of Bewick's conservation in Poland.
Kimzha, in the north eastern part of Arkhangelsk State, was the furthest north the ground team reached. It was here we reunited with Sacha. As we drove north, to meet her, we noticed the trees becoming smaller. We were approaching the treeline, the invisible division where tall foliage stops and tundra takes over. This is the terrain that Sacha had just overcome. It was all smiles as the flying team and ground team shared their stories and bonded in our makeshift campsite. Our elderly host, Lydia was blown away by the frantic nature of our arrival but Russian generosity still wowed the team as Lydia produced enough pancakes for 14 people!
We had four nights in this location, as we needed to complete some filming and also had the BBC present covering Sacha’s journey. As a result a few of us would periodically go off on exploratory drives, taking in the dramatic landscape. Vivid lichen covered the forest floor; with some of the team getting a roadside glimpse of a wolf prowling in the moonlight. It was truly wild here.
One afternoon Steve and myself decided to take a drive to get some photographs of a particularly beautiful lake. Unfortunately our photo shoot was cut short due to rain. But so as not to waste the trip, I decided on our return to camp to get a series of photos of Steve driving the closed cab L200 over the most remarkable bridge system. The bridge was covered in wet clay soil but the foundations were sand.
We did a series of drive-bys, and on the fifth and final go I asked Steve to slowly reverse a little more. As he did, a wheel hit a small rock catching Steve off guard, jolting the steering and suddenly one half of the car was stuck deep in this very fine sand. But luckily before we got well and truly stuck, we sought help. Brian Middleton and Peter Cranswick turned up chuckling away with our high top L200 and a towrope.
Brian took charge of the situation and once the tow was properly set up the stuck L200 was pulled out in a matter of moments. We laughed, as darkness closed in and it was time to return to camp with our metaphorical tails slightly between our legs. On the plus side, we got to experience the towing capabilities of the L200.
The Flight of the Swans expedition has been provided with five customised Mitsubishi vehicles for our ambitious conservation project to help raise awareness of the declining Bewick’s swan. Sacha Dench, a WWT employee and paramotoring enthusiast will fly from arctic Russia back to the UK over the course of ten or so weeks. Her epic journey, flying 7,000 km, will coincide with the equally mammouth migration of the Bewick’s swans and other wildfowl from their summer breeding grounds to warmer overwintering locations.
Bewick’s swans have seen a dramatic European population decline from 25,000 to less than 18,000 over the past twenty years. These charismatic swans overwinter in the UK, and ever since Sir Peter Scott first set up the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust 70 years ago, and purchased the now famous Slimbridge land, these swans have been the subject of one of the most detailed and longest running conservation studies ever.
Each vehicle has a key role in the project; here we are going to have a look at each of them.
First of all there is the open top L200. This is our paramotor and support vehicle. We are able to fit three paramotors in the boot of this vehicle, strap them down and then transport them to and from take off zones. We can also carry fuel and small maintenance items with this vehicle to keep our pilots flying!
The plan is for this vehicle to follow the paramotorists’ route as closely as possible, or at least as close as the roads will allow! At the helm is Peter Cranswick our logistics supervisor and all-round top dog, looking after all elements of the project from border crossings to making sure pilots drink enough water during their marathon flying days! Peter’s Mitsubishi is generally the only vehicle with one passenger/driver. This allows him to fit all the paramotors and pilots in one vehicle in case bad weather suddenly closes in and they have to land.
The L200 high top is our chief camp vehicle. It carries personal bags for pilots and other crewmembers. Rob and Sue Keene are in charge of this vehicle, as it also tows our microlight. Rob is our microlight pilot and his wife is probably the most important crewmember as she is the expedition chef!
The L200 closed cab is media vehicle 1. It houses Ben Cherry our photographer and social media manager out in the field, Ben Sadd our main wildlife cameraman and Steve Flanagan, timelapse and 360 specialist. This is generally our wildlife vehicle, which periodically peels off from the main expedition convoy to stake out key wildlife locations.
Shogun 1 is our second media vehicle. It takes Amber Eames our media producer and all-round mastermind, Samantha Vadas a Reuter’s journalist and chief story chaser, as well as specialist cameraman Matthew Harris. This car is also flexible, sniffing out interesting stories along the flyway but also reacting and shadowing Sacha.
Shogun 2 is our main trailer vehicle. We have a closed trailer for storing various items, from spare paramotor parts to drinking water and specialist mechanic tools. Brian Middleton, our head problem solver, aka mechanic is the driver. Often our expedition medic Elinor Young, who brings logic and sense to the team’s weird and wonderful ideas, will accompany him.
That in a nutshell is how our expedition team is utilising our customised Mitsubishis to help Sacha Dench complete her conservation expedition and raise awareness for the endangered Bewick’s swans and other wildfowl.
It’s dark and bumpy and we’re in the middle of nowhere. How did we get into this situation? A wall of trees obscures our view through the beam of the headlights as the dirt road cuts its way through the taiga forest.
The day had started in Pskov, our first stop after a 32-hour border crossing, and now we were making quick progress through Russia. We passed the daunting urban landscape of St Petersburg, which seemed to spring up from the endless forests we passed through. The roads were long and, in-between some crazy Russian overtaking, the going was smooth. Deep ditches, sometimes many metres tall highlighted the brutal conditions that frequent this area and encouraged us to take extra care as we passed wreckages of totalled roadside vehicles.
Our ambitious target for the evening was the town of Vytegra BbiTerpa, on Lake Onega. The reason for the 700km goal was that Sacha Dench, under favourable winds, was making brilliant progress in her paramotor and we needed to catch up, particularly after losing a day at the border.
Roads stayed in good condition as we passed Lake Ladoga and reached Lodejnoje Polje, at the end of the E105. With about 190km to go, this is where things changed. Dramatically. Towns we passed through started to thin out and then stop altogether, along with the evening light.
Approaching the border of Leningrad state it was as if it and Vologda state were in a disagreement as to who had responsibility of maintaining the road, resulting in abandonment. Road traffic switched from a steady flow of cars to sporadic timber lorries thundering over the now mud road, soon enough the road became so bumpy that the Shogun towing our trailer had to slow to a crawl.
The media Shogun and high-top L200 vehicle headed on to get to our hostel for the evening at a remotely respectable hour (it still wasn’t really), leaving our cabbed L200 and the Shogun pulling the trailer to trudge on so as not to destroy all our filming equipment. Peter and Steve were in the L200 that stayed in front, using its indicators to warn Brian and myself of any particularly bad potholes. The indicators were on more often than not over the next part of the journey, the orange lights flashing a sinister glow into the towering trees.
Our progress slowed to 6KPH with over 80km to go. The only salvation was a text from our fixer Philip telling us that the road would improve at the 60km mark. Onwards we trundled, passing a sign saying that road development would be finished (or maybe started, who knows with my Russian) by 2030 and apologising for any delays.
Every so often we would pull over, if the noise from the contents of the trailer was particularly awful. We even had a 1.30am group sing along to Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen, what a bizarre scene it must have been. Four Brits with two vehicles and a trailer stopped in the middle of nowhere with Queen blaring out of the speakers.
Thankfully the Mitsubishis kept on trundling along with no problem. They ingested the bumps and kept my vertebrae in the correct order, despite the road’s best effort to give my body a shakedown.
The towing Shogun was particularly impressive as it heaved our large trailer up and down this undulating and unwelcoming road, only switching to four-wheeled drive when the wet sludge was particularly viscous.
Sure enough the road did eventually, if sporadically, improve and as we passed through Oshta, we were even graced with pockets of tarmac! The trailer party rolled into Vytegra BbiTerpa and parked up outside the hostel alongside the other vehicles at 2.30am.
We collapsed into bed, thankful for a roof over our heads and vehicles that could deal with our first proper Russian test.Written by Ben Cherry, part of the field media team for Flight of the Swans.