Where swans spend winter?

Dec 5, 2023

Lake Svetloe in Altai has become incredibly popular in recent years – after all, more than 1200 whooper swans winter there. People already started to call it the Swan lake. On the Internet, information roams from site to site that in Russia there are only two reserves where whooper swans winter: in the Anadyr region of Chukotka and in the Sovietsky region of the Altai Territory. Is this true? Let’s find it out.

Whooper swans are migratory birds. They nest on the northern borders of the forests of Eurasia from Scandinavia and Scotland to Chukotka and Sakhalin. And they usually winter in regions with positive temperatures, because these birds need open water. For wintering, swans fly to Western Europe, to the north of the Mediterranean, the coast of the Caspian Sea, to Central, South and Southeast Asia, sometimes overcoming considerable distances. Whooper swans of Western Europe are more fortunate – they have to fly not so far. So, swans nesting in Iceland winter in Ireland, Finnish whooper swans fly to Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany.

Whooper swans wintering in Ireland. Photo: birdwatchireland.ie

The most difficult situation is for the Russian swans. In order to get to relatively warm wintering grounds (at least with temperatures above 0°С), they have to travel thousands of kilometers. Every winter at the Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, tens of thousands of whooper swans arrive. Big groups of Siberian swans find winter shelter in China in Hunan, Shandong and other provinces.

Swans in winter at the Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan Photo: Tengrinews.kz

Swans in winter in Shandong province in China. Photo: NewChina.tv

However, sometimes birds choose non-freezing lakes or rivers for wintering in regions with sub-zero temperatures. Lake Kussharo at Hokkaido island in Japan is famous all over the world. Photographers and birdwatchers from many countries come to take photos of swans on a lake surrounded by snow.

Whooper swans at the Lake Kussharo in Japan

But in Russia there are also several places where swans spend the winter in spite of more severe climate.

The largest wintering place for whoopers and mute swans in Russia is the Volga delta and the coast of the Caspian Sea in the Astrakhan region. The Volga Delta is an ideal place for wintering, due to the abundance and availability of food, up to 50 thousand whoopers and up to 100 thousand mute swans gather there. But there are also frosty winters, when lakes and ponds are covered with ice, then flocks of swans fly further south, to the western coast of the Caspian Sea – to Dagestan and Azerbaijan, where the cold no longer threatens them.

Another place for wintering of whooper swans in Russia is Kamchatka, where lakes are not frozen due to thermal springs. On the territory of Kronotsky Nature Reserve about 300 whooper swans spend winters. Also, birds have chosen a lake near Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, where the thermal power plant emits warm water. 

Already several years in a row about 30 birds winter on the non-freezing section of the Vuoksa River in the Leningrad Region. From time to time not big groups of swans are observed in the south of Urals, in Bashkiria. 

Sometimes single birds or couples stay on lakes that do not freeze during warm years in the south or in the European part of Russia. In cold years, when the lake is completely covered with ice, this can turn into a tragedy. 

Swans in winter in Kamchatka Photo: I.Konovalov, /kamtoday.ru/

Swans in winter in Astrakhan region Photo: Perkovsky M., Mesccheryakov, /astravolga.ru/

But you must admit that the climate of Kamchatka and the Leningrad region, Bashkiria, and even Hokkaido is much softer than in Altai. With an average January temperature of minus 20-24 degrees Celsius and frequent frosts of minus 35-40 Celsius, there are several wintering places in Altai!

Firstly, Lake Svetloe, where the Lebediny reserve is organized. The lake is fed by a large number of underground sources with a temperature of +5 + 6 degrees Celsius, so it never completely freezes. In 2023, the Altai branch of the Russian Bird Conservation Union conducted a census and counted more than 1,200 whooper swans here. Secondly, this is Molodezhny village near Biysk, where, due to the release of warm water from the thermal power plant, a large area of the Biya River does not freeze. More than 400 birds winter there. Also, in some years, small groups of wintering whooper swans are observed in the area of the village of Yailyu on Lake Teletskoye and on the Biya River in the Turochaksky district.

Thus, Altai is the coldest wintering place for swans in Russia, but at the same time so numerous!!!

Swans at the Swan Lake in Altai Photo: J. Van der Kooij

And what about in the Anadyr region of Chukotka? This is the Arctic, there are no non-freezing reservoirs, so swans cannot winter there. They come there to nest. Probably, the mistake came from the fact that in Russia there are 2 reserves under the name “Swan” – in Altai and Chukotka.” The main task of Chukotka swan reserve to protect the nesting whooper swans. By the way, there is an interesting film about these two wildlife sanctuaries called “Swan Paradise” on the channel “Culture”. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGZimbfdzDI)

And we invite you to observe swans. We offer both one-day excursions and an 8-day tour with a visit to the Swan Lake.


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