Keep calm and paddle on

In spite of a worldwide pandemic and all the associated changes to human life that have gone with it, I’m happy to report that our Trumpeter Swans have kept calm and carried on with normal swan life in the Blackfoot.  Although we only had six pairs of swans attempt to nest this year (following eight attempts in 2019), five of those nests were successful, hatching a total of 20 cygnets.  And all 20 cygnets survived to fledging (flying) age!  100% fledging success is a new record for us, and 20 cygnets is a healthy number.

Young swans released

We released three yearling swans in June.  Yearlings we release have their flight feathers clipped short so that they can’t fly immediately.  This gives them a chance to become bonded to the area where they are released.   In mid-summer, all swans molt out all of their flight feathers and grow new ones, leaving them unable to fly for a few weeks.  When the new feathers grow in, the yearlings we release are able to fly like the other swans. 

GPS collars and locations

We also put GPS radio collars on two adult (non-nesting) swans in the watershed.  We were able to do this relatively easily during the swans’ flightless period in summer.  At that time a few people in kayaks can paddle after a swan and corral it as it tires from swimming and lift it into a kayak.  It’s a safe and relatively low-stress way to capture a huge bird! (Watch a video of it here!) The collars are extremely lightweight and we’ve seen no evidence that they hinder the swans.  We check on those swans in the days after collaring to make sure there are no adverse effects.  

Although we get a lot of helpful information from sightings of swans that we make and that local observers send to us, being able to track the daily locations of some birds adds a tremendous amount to our understanding of how swans use the landscape.  We have learned that they use wetlands we didn’t know about or can’t get to easily, and that they move around a lot during the summer.  This helps us know which areas and kinds of wetlands provide the best habitat for swans, and can allow us to prioritize things like marking powerlines in places that they frequent. 

Swan movements in the Blackfoot

This map shows the locations and movements of one swan that we collared in July, from the time we put the collar on until it flew south out of the Blackfoot in October.  Some of the blue squares represent multiple days in one location.  We only actually saw and identified this swan by its collar four times during the summer, but we now know where it spent every day.  This will also help us know where to concentrate our efforts to look for other swans, and get more accurate counts of their population numbers.

Swan #10 locations in the Blackfoot Summer and Fall 2020

Swan #10 left the Blackfoot on October 26, the weekend of our early winter storm, and flew approximately 126 miles to Alder, MT.  The Ruby River valley around Sheridan and Alder is where many of the Blackfoot swans winter, and #10 has been in that area ever since.  

Fall Migration route of Swan #10

There are several folks in the Sheridan area who keep an eye out for collars and leg bands on the many swans that winter there.  A yearling swan (1V8) that we released this June was observed near Sheridan, MT on 12/4.  This photo was sent in an email from the owner of Ranch Resources, a conservation ranching company in Sheridan, who spotted 1V8 on a pond just outside of town, along with 20 other swans.

Blackfoot swan 1V8 near Sheridan, MT on 12/4/2020
Photo by Logan Miller

Another yearling that we released, 1V2, was also spotted near Sheridan on 12/22, very close to where Swan #10 is.

Our second GPS-collared swan left the Blackfoot on 11/14.  She flew to Ennis Lake and spent two and a half weeks there, and on 12/1 flew to the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, near Island Park in southeast Idaho, and she is still there.

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Blackfoot Trumpeters unaffected by Covid-19!

Spring (or Mud Season, as we tend to call it around here) is returning to the Blackfoot, and so are the Trumpeter Swans.  The first swans were seen coming through the watershed in late February.  Many Trumpeter and Tundra Swans migrate through our area on their way to nesting grounds farther north, so not every Trumpeter we see in the spring or fall is a “Blackfoot bird”.  But we know that some of our local swans were here by early March, thanks in part to one of the satellite radio collars we put on two swans last summer.  Both of those swans spent most of the winter in the Ruby River valley in SW Montana, as do many Blackfoot swans, near the town of Sheridan.

Swan #2 left that area on February 28 and headed north.  She spent that night on a pond near Rocker, Montana, and spent the next three nights on the Warm Springs Ponds near Anaconda.  On March 4 she flew north and west down the Clark Fork River, over the Garnet Range, and to the Clearwater.  We have a data gap until March 17, when she flew north again to the Holland Lake area, and was last known to be there on April 4.  You can see the route she took on the map below!

By now, the third week in April, we’ve been able to document that almost all of our nesting pairs are back on their territories in the Blackfoot.  Some have returned with last year’s cygnets in tow, but will likely chase them away soon as they begin to prepare for another nesting season.  The young ones may group up with other young swans and spend the summer on a lake or wetland that doesn’t have a nest on it.

Sadly, one of the cygnets we released last September at our public release, Swan 9V8, was found dead under a power line in the Madison valley in November.

A more positive sighting was of Swan 8V1, who was released as a cygnet in 2015 and had not been observed after that fall until last week, when she was photographed in a field just north of Rainy Lake in the Clearwater!  Landowner Helene Michaels of Seeley Lake took this photo of 8V1 and another swan, likely her mate.

8V1 is likely with her mate and therefore doesn’t need to social distance!

Here is a very cool animation of Trumpeter Swan migration in North America from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  If you click on the link, you can watch how swans move from wintering grounds to nesting locations throughout the year on a continental scale!: https://ebird.org/science/status-and-trends/truswa/abundance-map-weekly

 

 

Tracking Swan Movements

Carl Brown of Wyoming Wetlands Society holds Swan #1 as she is fitted with a lightweight tracking collar.

In July we captured two non-nesting adult swans in the Blackfoot and fitted them with very lightweight collars with GPS units. These collars transmit locations to us via cell service, and they have already given us lots of valuable information about the swans.  We have been able to track their daily movements in the Blackfoot Valley from late summer to fall migration, giving us a much better idea of the places and habitats in the valley that they use and how much they move around.  You can see, for example, that Swan #1 traveled around the watershed quite a bit between Ovando, Helmville, and Seeley Lake and even ventured slightly into the Swan valley before she headed south on November 8:

We’ve also been able to see their migration path south, the exact timing of their departures, where they “layover” on their way south, how long it takes them to reach their (perhaps not final) destination, and more.  Swan #1 was in the Ovando area (on the lake where she spent the summer) on November 7.  On November 8 she flew south to the Warm Springs State Wildlife Management Area, where she spent the next two nights.  On November 10 she flew 80 miles south to end up just south of Alder, Montana, in the Ruby River Valley:
Since the data from the collars can only download when within cell tower range, we don’t have any more recent information on her locations, but we are eagerly waiting to “hear from” our Blackfoot swans again!

Ups and Downs

This past spring saw quite a few days of cool, wet weather in the Blackfoot, which seemed to affect our swan productivity this year. There were six known nesting attempts, five of which were successful, producing a total of twelve cygnets. This is a bit fewer than in the past couple of years, when we had 24 cygnets (2016) and then 20 cygnets (2017) hatch.  One nest that has been successful the past two years was actually underwater for most of the nesting season, and the pair did not nest at all.

Since Trumpeter Swans must incubate their eggs for around 34 days in May and June, it can be tough to make sure those eggs stay at the right temperature the entire time, since the female swans must get off the nest occasionally to feed. While the males of some bird species will share incubation duties with the females, in most waterfowl the incubation is solely the job of the females. As long as it is not too hot or too cold, they can leave the nest at times by covering their eggs with nesting material and downy feathers.  This insulates the eggs from the weather and also hides them from potential predators.  It’s likely that in a cool, wet spring there will be times when that strategy fails to keep the eggs warm enough.  In our watershed one nest failed entirely this year, one had only one cygnet, and two had only two each, although the other nests had three and four each.

However, the great news is that all twelve of those cygnets have survived so far!  It’s pretty unusual for all that hatch to survive the first few months, and as they get larger they are vulnerable to fewer predators, so the outlook for a healthy number to make it to fledging (flying) age is good.

You may recall that last year we had to cancel the swan release due to wildfire activity and smoke.  We were able to release those swans as yearlings this past spring, and planned another public release this September with young swans hatched in captivity in May.  However, like our Blackfoot nests, the swans at the facility where they are hatched did not do very well this spring either.  Unfortunately, that means they don’t have any young swans for the Blackfoot and we will not have a swan release this fall either.

While it is very disappointing that we won’t have this wonderful fall event for the schools and the public again this year, the good news is that our swans seem to be slowly but surely increasing their numbers on their own.   Our monitoring efforts from the ground and a recent survey flight showed 45 adult Trumpeter Swans in the valley along with the 12 cygnets. Most of those “adult” swans are likely one or two years old and have not yet begun to look for a mate and territory.  Hopefully they will continue to return to the Blackfoot in the spring and soon be ready to settle down and raise families of their own.

Snow Geese Scouts

Many Blackfoot residents have noticed the unusually high numbers of Snow Geese (along with swans and ducks) in the watershed this year, and that they have been staying around longer than in other years.  We’ve thought it likely that they were piling up here where there has been at least a little open water and fields, waiting for things to thaw to the north.  Now we are seeing big flocks leaving the watershed, heading north over the Bob Marshall.   And a biologist in California has some really cool transmitter data showing not only that a lot of the geese that winter in California have been passing through here, but that some of them seem to scout out conditions in the north while they wait!  Chris Nicolai of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put radio transmitters on 39 geese in the Central Valley and has been following them via satellites as they’ve migrated north.

Radio telemetry locations of Snow Geese migrating out of California’s Central Valley in spring 2018

The map above shows that most of them have come through Montana and spent weeks in the Great Falls area before moving to Canada recently.  And at least one goose made two trips up to Alberta and back to Benton Lakes in Montana this spring!  We don’t know if these birds have some way of communicating with the rest that conditions are not right to continue migration or if these are just overeager individuals that can’t help checking things out.  But it does seem that most of the flocks have some way of knowing when to move.  And the warmer, drier weather that has accelerated our snowmelt and started to open up the lakes has put them back on course.  The map below shows that some of these geese came right through the Blackfoot on their way north:

Locations of Snow Geese in Montana this spring as they migrated north to Canada.

 

You can track these Snow Geese directly by going to https://www.movebank.org/node/36241 and searching for Wintering California Geese.  Or you may be able to see a big flock overhead if you are out and about in the Blackfoot today!