Swans in the Ruby Valley

By Elaine Caton, Swan Restoration Program Coordinator

On January 19, I made my annual trip to the Ruby River Valley in southwest Montana to look for wintering Blackfoot swans. I usually try to time my trip during a cold snap so that I have a greater chance of finding swans concentrated in a few areas of open water. But this year my timing was off for different reasons! I left Ovando in the early morning in a storm that had left an icy coating of snow on the highways. It snowed pretty hard all the way to Butte, and there were tractor trailers lined up at the bottom of Homestake Pass putting their chains on. But once I reached the east side of the divide the snow ended except for an occasional squall, and the highways cleared up as I drove into the Ruby Valley and through the little towns of Twin Bridges and Sheridan.

When I reached Sheridan I stopped in at Ranch Resources, a company that provides ranch management and resource conservation expertise on working properties. Owners Logan Miller and Dan Durham have been very helpful in sending swan sightings to me and driving me around to locations I wouldn’t be able to reach on my own.

We hopped in Dan’s vehicle and headed out to look for swans where they had been seen recently. We checked some ponds surrounded by great wetland habitat, but only saw ducks and geese. We finally found six trumpeters in a small wetland far out in a field, but none of them had collars and, due to the grasses and cattails, we were unable to see their legs. We spent a couple of hours going to every usual hot spot where they are often sighted, with no more luck.

In terms of identifying Blackfoot swans, it was a disappointing trip. But it’s always interesting going to the Ruby in the winter. It is like the Blackfoot Watershed in many ways—agricultural lands with cattle spread throughout the valley bottom, interspersed with wetlands and a river running through it. But it is also quite a bit warmer than the Blackfoot in winter, with very little snow and lots of open water. No wonder our swans like it!

I also learned some very helpful information about Blackfoot swans in the area. A participant in the Christmas Bird Count in the Ruby reported this:

We saw 19 Swans, 4 of which were juveniles. Another area reported 5 swans for the count. The neck banded bird was Red with White letters – 7A6. At least 3 other adults were FWS leg-banded, with no plastic band on other leg. About half swans were on the ice while rest were in water and legs not seen.

7A6 was released as a yearling in the Blackfoot in 2012. He has returned every summer since, nested successfully the past two years, and he and his mate left the Blackfoot this past fall with two cygnets. 7A6 was observed on New Year’s Day last winter at the Silver Springs ponds near Sheridan. The other three adults with leg bands and the other juveniles were likely from the Blackfoot, too.

Not seeing a whole lot of Blackfoot swans in the Ruby is probably a good thing, because it means they are spreading out geographically for the winter. This increases the chances that if some problem should occur in one area (an especially hard winter, loss of habitat, toxicity, or disease, for example), not all of our swans would be endangered. So although it’s always exciting to identify individuals and see Blackfoot birds in their winter homes, it was still another good trip to the Ruby Watershed.

Quilt & Swan Release Raffle

For the first time in nearly two centuries, trumpeter swans have successfully nested in the Blackfoot Watershed and we are proud to announce that seven cygnets are healthy and doing well! The humble beginnings of swan restoration to the Blackfoot began in 2003 with a concerned landowner and morphed into what we know today as the Blackfoot Trumpeter Swan Restoration Program, a collaborative effort of private landowners, local schools, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, Wyoming Wetlands Society, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Montana Wetlands Legacy and Blackfoot Challenge to release over 100 trumpeters into the watershed to establish seven breeding pairs of swans. After eight years, we are thrilled to bear witness to this momentous event.

To aid in fundraising for the Swan Restoration Program, a stunningly beautiful handmade quilt, donated by Patti Bartlett, a Seeley Lake teacher whose students have participated in learning about and helping release swans, will be raffled and 2 winners will be selected to hold and release a trumpeter swan on May 23rd, 2012. The finished quilt is 56” x 72”. Raffle tickets sell for $20 each or three for $50. The drawing will take place on May 23rd, 2012. To purchase, please contact the Blackfoot Challenge office by phone at 406-793-3900 or email: swan@blackfootswans.org Thank you for your support!

Blackfoot Challenge Quilt

Blackfoot Challenge Quilt

quilt2

Swans on the Move

Some of the Blackfoot trumpeters released this spring and summer have begun taking wing! Several of our young birds have left their release sites and taken their first flights, trying out their wings as means of transportation for the first time. Appropriately cautious, they have not yet gone far. They are simply hopping from wetland to wetland in the Ovando area, exploring new waters. Satellite radios on a few of them tell us where some are going, and we are sometimes able to go to the sites shown by the satellite locations and check on the birds directly. We have found that some are traveling in small groups, while others have flown by themselves to join swans at other wetlands.

This is an important time for these young swans, as they explore new territory and find out that they can move around under their own power. It is also a potentially dangerous time as they must avoid threats like power lines, fences, and other obstructions, learn how to land and take off safely, avoid predators in new sites, and interact with other swans, all while strengthening their flying muscles and improving their flight skills. But this learning period will be vital to their success as they begin to migrate south for the first time in a few short weeks!

If you observe swans during this time, especially if they are in places you don’t usually see them, please report your observations on the website. This could be important information and help us keep track of these young and now mobile birds!

Trumpeters 2010

This spring and early summer, biologists released 30 trumpeter swans on five different wetlands in the Blackfoot valley. The first release, on the Blackfoot WPA along Highway 200 east of Ovando, occurred in May. Over 90 students and their teachers from 6 schools in the watershed helped release the swans, while learning about swan biology and wetland ecology.

Each released swan wears a spiffy red neck collar with an individual letter and number code in white letters, as well as a matching leg band. This helps biologists track the movements and locations of individual swans as well as their fates, when sightings are reported by interested observers. For example, we have learned that some of the trumpeters previously released in the Blackfoot have spent their winters in southeast Idaho and southwestern Montana. We have also learned that several of our released swans have died, from collisions with powerlines, parasites and starvation, legal hunting and illegal shooting, and predation. We have not had sightings of several more, so it is unknown whether they are dead or alive.

However, several swans have also returned safely to the Blackfoot this year. There are at least 3 pairs that have established territories in the valley and will likely nest next year! There are a few more that are hanging out with the young swans that were released this spring, and may form pairs with some of them.

Eight of the swans released this year are also sporting satellite radios on their red and white collars. This allows us to keep tabs on the swans when they move, without having to rely on observations alone. This will be especially helpful when the swans begin to migrate out of the valley in the fall.

So far, of the 30 swans released this year, all but 2 are accounted for and near or at their release locations.

Swans visible from Highway 200

Thank you to all the folks that have turned in swan sightings this summer! The swans have been very visible along Highway 200; you can see them on the Blackfoot Waterfowl Production Area two miles west of the Highway 141 junction and ten miles east of Lincoln on a private pond. The cygnets will begin flying between wetlands as their flight feathers grow back in after their molt. Please continue to send in your swan sighting reports to the website or the Challenge office. This will help us keep tabs on the swans as they begin their preparations for migration.