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!

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.

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.

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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.