A Good Spring for Swans

It has been a thrilling spring in the Blackfoot for swan watchers!  There are more trumpeters around than ever, with lots of folks reporting swans in both known sites and new places.  And even more exciting is the fact that we have 13 pairs of swans on territories, and at least 8 of those are nesting!

Some of the swans started incubating the first week in May this year (like many animals and plants, a few weeks earlier than in past years).  The females steadfastly sat through some torrential rain showers and high winds, and our nests have all survived without any flooding or abandonment.

Sharp-eyed community observers have reported pairs of swans in some new territories, including two locations in the Clearwater drainage and one in the Lincoln area.  And during a flight over the area on June 1, Kevin Ertl was able to find a nest in a new territory near the Blackfoot River.

cw nest

Can you spot the tiny white dot in the middle of this photo that is an incubating female swan? Nests are often well hidden and difficult to see!

With the watershed swan population still relatively small, it just takes a little bad luck to slow down progress–like last year when we had several nests but only one cygnet that survived to migrate.  But with these more robust numbers of swans in the watershed,  and so many pairs nesting, it’s much more likely that we will reach our goal soon of at least 7 successful nests to help sustain the population.

Stay tuned for updates as eggs start to hatch!  And feel free to contact me at elaine@blackfootchallenge.org with questions.

Trekking Swans

In early June a pair of swans (6A6 and mate) had three cygnets that had hatched on a wetland pond near Ovando (see previous blog post).  When they were less than a week old, the entire family disappeared from the wetland.  I could imagine two possible scenarios to explain their disappearance: either something had caused the death of all the cygnets, and the parents had moved to another wetland since there was nothing to tie them down, or the entire family was in a nearby location out of sight.  I spent the next couple of weeks searching wetlands and lakes in the area for any of these swans, to no avail.  They were also not visible to a swan observer in a small plane who searched for them at the end of June.  Because the cygnets were only a few days old when they vanished, I was beginning to worry that they must have been eaten and the adults moved far away.

Then in early July, just less than one month after they had hatched, I saw the pair with two cygnets in a wetland over a mile and a half away!  This is a wetland with lots of cattails and other heavy vegetation and little open water, so it can be very difficult to see swans when they are there.  It was the one location I still held out hope for finding them, as the pair spent quite a bit of time feeding there before nesting and even while incubating.

The big question of where they were was solved, but others remain!  How did the parents successfully get 2 out of 3 very small, young cygnets to walk a mile and a half?  Even by travelling down a small creek to reach there, they would still have had to trek for over 3/4 mile across the open prairie to reach the relative safety of water.  In addition to the coyotes, foxes, mink, otters, bobcats, lions, hawks, and owls that are in this area, they would have made the journey a short distance from a Bald Eagle nest with a hungry eaglet urging its parents to bring food.  They would have had to cross under at least two electric fences.  And why did the parents feel it necessary to nest in one wetland but soon move to another?

Swans have been known to move cygnets from one wetland to another, and it is likely due to the best nest site not necessarily coinciding with the best feeding habitat.  But it still seems like a tremendous risk to take in moving them.  I’m just thrilled that they were able to do it without losing more than one!

At a month and a half old, the cygnets are still less than 1/4 the size of the adults and downy gray.  But they are growing quickly and less vulnerable to depredation by the day.

First Babies

colburn family

6A6 and his mate with their 3 cygnets on a pond near Ovando


The first Blackfoot cygnets of 2015 hatched from a nest on a pond near Ovando on June 7!  6A6 and his mate (an unbanded female from the wild) are proud parents with 3 cygnets.  6A6 was released several miles north of Ovando as a one-year-old swan in 2011.  He returned to the area the following summer with an unbanded female and the pair settled on their territory shortly after that.

They have returned faithfully to their territory every year since, first attempting to nest in 2013.  Their nest that year, along with others in the Blackfoot, failed during incubation, possibly due to some wild storms that passed through the area.

In 2014 they again attempted to nest.  Just at the time their eggs were due to hatch, I spotted them almost a mile from their nest in a little wetland, with no cygnets.  I canoed out to the nest to see if there were any clues as to why it had failed.  A tiny fragment of eggshell was all I found, so we aren’t sure exactly what happened.  It is possible that the eggs hatched and the adults tried to move the cygnets to another wetland, as they sometimes do, and something preyed upon them on the way.

This year they faced another obstacle, as one of the pair–we think the female– was seen to hit a power line while flying back to the nest site after feeding in a nearby wetland.  After sitting in a pasture for a time, apparently stunned, she made it back to the nest and seemed to be okay.  This pair has successfully completed another reproductive step and managed to produce cygnets, but still have a long road ahead to raise them to adulthood.

As with many aspects of swan biology, it can be difficult to figure out exactly what is going on with nesting and reproduction.  We have at least 4 other pairs in the area that are on their territories, but their nesting status is unclear.  Some nests are impossible to see from the ground, due to vegetation in the way.  Because we don’t want to risk disturbing them, it can be difficult to determine what they are doing, and because swans will leave their nest (covering their eggs quite well) during warm periods, catching the female on the nest even if she is in incubation stage can be challenging.  Hopefully we will see these other pairs with cygnets soon as well!


Home Again

swans on the moon

0A5 and 0A6 on the ice on Lake Upsata; photo by Greg Neudecker

Trumpeter Swans first began making their appearances in the Blackfoot in early March, back from wintering grounds in southwestern Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.  Since then, we’ve documented the return of the five pairs that nested here last year, in addition to several other Blackfoot swans, and lots of unbanded swans that are likely  here on their way back to summer in Canada or Alaska.

We know of at least 16 different Blackfoot swans that have returned this spring, and some of those are paired up with unbanded swans that either hatched here in the valley in the past few years or joined up with them on their winter grounds.

Not only are our wetlands here providing great nesting habitat for “our” swans, but they also offer great opportunities for those swans from more northern populations traveling through in the spring and fall.  Migration is a physically stressful and dangerous event for birds, and good quality stopover sites can make a significant difference in birds being able to complete their difficult journeys and to start the breeding season in good condition.

One day in March I watched 29 trumpeters, all within a 1/4-mile long stretch of wetland and creek habitat in the valley bottom between Ovando and Helmville.  They were loafing in the sun on the banks and feeding in the shallow water.  One of them was Blackfoot swan 6A0, who was paired up with an uncollared swan.  They both appeared to be nest-building; pulling up material and placing it around themselves.  The uncollared bird was up on a  goose nest or some elevated structure made of vegetation. They were likely “practicing” for the coming summer!  After I watched for 15-20 minutes, they flew north low, trumpeting, over some of the other swans and landed by a clump of them.  They displayed a bit in the water and then all settled down.

6A0 was released in 2011 and spent the summer of 2012 in the Blackfoot.  It wintered near Rexburg, ID in the 2012-2013 winter, and has been sighted near Augusta Montana in the springs of 2013 and 2014.  It is one of three collared swans Curtis Kruer observed in the Ruby valley this past winter.  We haven’t seen it since, so it may have headed back to the Augusta area with its apparent mate.



The Blackfoot Watershed gained five Trumpeter Swans in early September, with the release of 5 cygnets cheered on by 150 schoolkids from schools throughout the watershed and beyond.


Bonner teacher Lesa Homer, surrounded by her students, holds a swan ready to be released.

In past years, 1-year-old or even 2-year-old captive swans were released in the Blackfoot in May.  This year, however, only cygnets hatched last spring were available for release, and they would have been too vulnerable to danger without an adult around, had they been released earlier in the year.  Thus, a September release of gray swans!  The young swans had not yet learned to fly, but were almost old enough to start.

These swans sport no red collars because fitting them safely yet securely on young swans still growing would be risky.  After receiving leg bands, they were all released together.

Into the Wild!

Following the release, students attended five stations where volunteers guided them in learning about different aspects of swans and wetland ecology.

Nature Journaling

Aquatic Invasive Plants

Swan Biology

Aquatic Invasive Mussels


Meanwhile, the young swans were getting used to their new habitat and freedom.

After their release, the swans spent the next several weeks feeding on the lake and meeting some of their neighbors, adult swans from nearby wetlands that would fly in for brief periods. The cygnets were first seen flying just less than one month later, when they made a big circle toward Ovando and back.  They made similar flights, always returning to their release site, throughout the next few weeks.  They were joined on the lake by 0V6, a swan that was released here in 2013 and spent the summer on a nearby wetland.  Together, they all flew to a lake a couple of miles to the northwest and spent more of the fall there.  They had all left the valley, very likely together, by the time the cold snap arrived in November.  This was the first time we have observed newly released swans joining with older, experienced migrants to head south.