About elaine

Elaine monitors the local Trumpeter Swan population for the Blackfoot Challenge and US Fish and Wildlife Service. She also participates in science education programs in the Blackfoot Watershed.

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!

Summer Swan Roundup

Where’s the best place to be in a hot, smoky summer of fires?  A wetland, of course! While the rest of us were sweating and fretting, our swans seem to have fared just fine in spite of some major fires that burned in the surrounding mountains. Nineteen of the twenty cygnets that hatched in May and June have survived and are now in the process of learning to fly.  

When the cygnets hatched in the spring, they weighed about 7 ounces. In an astonishing feat of growth, they gained up to 20% of their body weight every day for a few weeks, at some point increasing by a pound a week, until reaching about 20 pounds at this time of year. Their early diet was composed mostly of protein-rich insects and other aquatic invertebrates, which enabled this rapid growth.  Not only were they gaining weight and getting larger, they were also growing all the body and flight feathers they will need to carry them to their wintering grounds in a few short weeks.

Trumpeter Swan family loafing on the shore. If you look very carefully you may be able to see the black bill and white head of the other adult peering out of the grass toward the left side of the photo.

The cygnets will soon take to the air in short flights across the wetlands, and make longer flights in the area with their parents as their flight muscles grow stronger.  Sometime before freeze-up they will leave the watershed in family groups, heading for wintering areas to the south, where waterways remain open and aquatic vegetation is accessible. There they will mix with Tundra Swans from the north and other Trumpeter Swans from the Canadian and American Rocky Mountain region.  In the spring the family will migrate north again to the Blackfoot, and the adults will chase their offspring off their territory in anticipation of producing a new batch of young.  The yearlings will likely stay together and perhaps join other young swans for the summer.  At two years of age they will begin to seek their own mates and territories.

We had to cancel our fall Swan Release event due to wildfire proximity and smoke.  The captive cygnets we planned to release will be held in captivity over the winter and released in the Blackfoot next year under better conditions.

A New Generation of Swans

It seems that every year is a little different for Trumpeter Swans in the Blackfoot, and this year is no exception! At least 36 swans returned to the watershed this spring, including a record number of 13 pairs. There are also two groups of yearlings from last year’s nests around, and one yearling that was released last year.

It appears that a couple of our pairs lost one member from last year. One of these surviving swans returned with a new mate and another seems to have returned with its yearling cygnets but no mate. For this and perhaps other reasons as well, we only had five active nests this year, down from eight last year. However, those five nests were all successful and have produced 20 or more cygnets in all!

Additionally, one of those nests is new this year, and it is near Lincoln, so our population appears to be slowly spreading throughout the watershed. This is also closer to the site on the Bouma Post Yard where Trumpeter Swans attempted to nest in the Blackfoot in 2003, after being absent from the watershed for over a century. And we have swans on several lakes in the Clearwater branch of the watershed as well, all of which bode well for the continued success of Trumpeter Swans in the Blackfoot and beyond.

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.


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.


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.


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