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.