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!:



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 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!

Swans in the Blackfoot: Trumpeters or Tundras?

Tundra Swans flying over Wigeon Marsh near Ovando on April 1.

This time of year, as well as in the fall, I have to take a close look at–or listen to–any swans I see, to know which species I’m observing. While we are now fortunate enough to have a fairly robust summer population of Trumpeter Swans in the middle and upper Blackfoot, we also have migrating Tundra Swans that pass through on their way to nesting grounds in the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic.  These “cousins” to our Trumpeter Swans can be difficult to tell from trumpeters, even by expert observers!

The Sibley Guide website has a lot of good information on distinguishing the two, as does the Trumpeter Swan Society . Trumpeters are larger than Tundra Swans, although it’s difficult to see that unless they are side by side.  Trumpeters have long, straight bills, usually with a strip of orange on the lower part.  Tundra Swans have rounder heads with shorter, more concave bills.  Tundras typically have yellow spots on the black “lores” near their eyes, but they can also have orange strips!  As you can see from the photo below, they can be difficult to identify unless you can clearly see them side by side.

Adult Trumpeter Swan (left) and adult Tundra Swan (right) showing larger size difference of Trumpeter and different bill shape. Toronto on 17 December 2017. Photo by Jean Iron, used with permission.

The sounds the two species make are very distinct, however, and this is the easiest way to tell them apart if you are lucky enough to hear them. Tundra Swans were formerly called Whistling Swans, and they definitely have a different call than the low tone of the trumpeters.  You can hear the sounds of Trumpeter Swans here and compare them to the higher pitched “whistle” of the Tundra Swans here.

Mute Swans, an exotic species from Europe, have become established in some parts of the eastern U.S. and Midwest, but fortunately have not made it to Montana, as they are aggressive competitors with our native swan species and can damage ecosystem functions.  I had a scare last week as we were driving home from Oregon and saw a golf course near Spokane with Mute Swans in several of the ponds!  On closer inspection they turned out to be decoys, probably placed there to scare off geese and ducks, but they also gave a fright to this swan observer.

With many bodies of water still frozen in western Montana, people are seeing lots of swans and Snow Geese filling up the few open ponds and fields.  It’s a wonderful time to be out and about, hearing the cries of the wild flocks as they wing their way north or settle down for some important rest and refueling on their long journeys.  The wetlands of our watershed provide vital habitat for so many species throughout the year.  And it’s just as exciting to know that some of the swans will stay right here in the Blackfoot to raise their young this coming summer!