Blackfoot Swans in good winter hands

In late January I made my annual pilgrimage to the Ruby River valley in southwestern Montana to look for wintering Blackfoot swans. Many of the trumpeters banded and released in the Blackfoot fly only as far south as the Ruby Valley for the winter, near the towns of Sheridan, Twin Bridges, and Alder.  Warm springs and a somewhat milder winter climate keep even some still waters open in this area, providing foraging sites for waterfowl. Migrating is dangerous and energy-intensive, and the shortest distance you can go and still find enough food to survive the winter is probably the best bet.

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Blackfoot Trumpeter 7A6 (near center of group, with red collar) and family with other wintering swans in the Ruby Valley.

Several diligent and sharp-eyed folks in the area keep an eye out for swans and let me know when they see them, particularly if they are sporting the fashionable red collars and leg bands worn by trumpeters released in Montana. This year in the Ruby we found a pair that has a territory in the Blackfoot but hasn’t nested yet.  We also found two of our Blackfoot swan families.  They had left the Blackfoot last fall with 3 and 4 cygnets each, but it was difficult to tell if they still had all their cygnets with them in the Ruby.  They are grouped with swans from other places in these wintering sites, and since our cygnets don’t have bands I can’t always tell which cygnets are with which pairs.

All three of these pairs of swans spent last winter in the Ruby as well, in the same few ponds where we found them this year.  Seeing these swans in both places always reminds me of how vulnerable our swans–and all migratory birds–can be.  We may provide great stewardship and habitat here in the Blackfoot, but when they leave for the winter, as most of “our” birds do, their fate is largely out of our hands.  In both migration pathways and wintering grounds they must find relative safety from predators, weather, and human-caused dangers (powerlines as one example of these, in the case of swans).  They must also find good enough food sources to keep them not just alive but robust enough to make the return journey to nesting sites and arrive in healthy condition.  It’s a lot to hope for!

Fortunately for Trumpeter Swans and other birds that winter there, the Ruby Valley also has many landowners, agency employees, and nonprofits dedicated to conserving habitat and the working land that provides it.  The Ruby Habitat Foundation’s Executive Director Les Gilman is a fifth-generation rancher whose son still ranches the family’s place, while Les provides expertise and guidance on resource management.  Many of our swan sightings are on land owned by the Foundation or managed by Ranch Resources, a land management company that Les also works with.  Other employees of these organizations, as well as local NRCS District Conservationist Dan Durham, keep an eye on wintering waterfowl along, with all the day-to-day work they do that makes the Ruby a welcoming and safe place for many bird species.

 

A Bevy of Swans

2016 has seen the most pairs of Trumpeter Swans in the Blackfoot, the greatest number of nests, and the most cygnets hatched here since reintroduction efforts began. That trend of success continued throughout the summer, with most cygnets from most nests surviving to fledge, or develop the feathers and muscles necessary to fly.

There were 8 active nests in the watershed this spring, and 6 of those nests produced young. The numbers of cygnets that hatched from each nest ranged from 2 to 5, for a whopping total of 24! This is more than twice the highest number of cygnets previously hatched, which was 10 in 2014. And survival to fledging was also great this year; 17 of those 24 cygnets are now flying around the valley with their parents!

There was an 18th cygnet that has survived, but is not flying.  A pair of trumpeters settled on Placid Lake near Seeley Lake last summer, and nested there this year, to the delight of many homeowners and visitors.  Markers set in the water to inform boaters to avoid disturbing the nesting swans were successful, and this pair hatched 5 cygnets in June.  The family, along with a family of loons, were watched and enjoyed throughout the summer and fall.

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Trumpeter Swan family on Placid Lake in July, 2016.  Photo courtesy of Mark Taylor.

Observant lake residents noticed that in September, when the family first began to fly around, one cygnet did not take to the air with the rest.  The parents and 4 other cygnets flew at least as far as Salmon Lake, leaving the last one behind.  When this situation hadn’t changed after a month, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists were able to capture the non-flying cygnet by boat.  It appeared otherwise healthy and strong, but had not grown the normal flight feathers on its wings.  It was taken to the Wyoming Wetlands Society’s captive breeding facility in Jackson, Wyoming, where it will be tested and cared for through the winter, and where hopefully it will grow flight feathers when it molts next summer.

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Randy Gazda holding the 5th cygnet from Placid Lake

 

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.

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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

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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!