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.
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.