First Babies

colburn family

6A6 and his mate with their 3 cygnets on a pond near Ovando

 

The first Blackfoot cygnets of 2015 hatched from a nest on a pond near Ovando on June 7!  6A6 and his mate (an unbanded female from the wild) are proud parents with 3 cygnets.  6A6 was released several miles north of Ovando as a one-year-old swan in 2011.  He returned to the area the following summer with an unbanded female and the pair settled on their territory shortly after that.

They have returned faithfully to their territory every year since, first attempting to nest in 2013.  Their nest that year, along with others in the Blackfoot, failed during incubation, possibly due to some wild storms that passed through the area.

In 2014 they again attempted to nest.  Just at the time their eggs were due to hatch, I spotted them almost a mile from their nest in a little wetland, with no cygnets.  I canoed out to the nest to see if there were any clues as to why it had failed.  A tiny fragment of eggshell was all I found, so we aren’t sure exactly what happened.  It is possible that the eggs hatched and the adults tried to move the cygnets to another wetland, as they sometimes do, and something preyed upon them on the way.

This year they faced another obstacle, as one of the pair–we think the female– was seen to hit a power line while flying back to the nest site after feeding in a nearby wetland.  After sitting in a pasture for a time, apparently stunned, she made it back to the nest and seemed to be okay.  This pair has successfully completed another reproductive step and managed to produce cygnets, but still have a long road ahead to raise them to adulthood.

As with many aspects of swan biology, it can be difficult to figure out exactly what is going on with nesting and reproduction.  We have at least 4 other pairs in the area that are on their territories, but their nesting status is unclear.  Some nests are impossible to see from the ground, due to vegetation in the way.  Because we don’t want to risk disturbing them, it can be difficult to determine what they are doing, and because swans will leave their nest (covering their eggs quite well) during warm periods, catching the female on the nest even if she is in incubation stage can be challenging.  Hopefully we will see these other pairs with cygnets soon as well!

 

Home Again

swans on the moon

0A5 and 0A6 on the ice on Lake Upsata; photo by Greg Neudecker

Trumpeter Swans first began making their appearances in the Blackfoot in early March, back from wintering grounds in southwestern Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.  Since then, we’ve documented the return of the five pairs that nested here last year, in addition to several other Blackfoot swans, and lots of unbanded swans that are likely  here on their way back to summer in Canada or Alaska.

We know of at least 16 different Blackfoot swans that have returned this spring, and some of those are paired up with unbanded swans that either hatched here in the valley in the past few years or joined up with them on their winter grounds.

Not only are our wetlands here providing great nesting habitat for “our” swans, but they also offer great opportunities for those swans from more northern populations traveling through in the spring and fall.  Migration is a physically stressful and dangerous event for birds, and good quality stopover sites can make a significant difference in birds being able to complete their difficult journeys and to start the breeding season in good condition.

One day in March I watched 29 trumpeters, all within a 1/4-mile long stretch of wetland and creek habitat in the valley bottom between Ovando and Helmville.  They were loafing in the sun on the banks and feeding in the shallow water.  One of them was Blackfoot swan 6A0, who was paired up with an uncollared swan.  They both appeared to be nest-building; pulling up material and placing it around themselves.  The uncollared bird was up on a  goose nest or some elevated structure made of vegetation. They were likely “practicing” for the coming summer!  After I watched for 15-20 minutes, they flew north low, trumpeting, over some of the other swans and landed by a clump of them.  They displayed a bit in the water and then all settled down.

6A0 was released in 2011 and spent the summer of 2012 in the Blackfoot.  It wintered near Rexburg, ID in the 2012-2013 winter, and has been sighted near Augusta Montana in the springs of 2013 and 2014.  It is one of three collared swans Curtis Kruer observed in the Ruby valley this past winter.  We haven’t seen it since, so it may have headed back to the Augusta area with its apparent mate.

 

Released!

The Blackfoot Watershed gained five Trumpeter Swans in early September, with the release of 5 cygnets cheered on by 150 schoolkids from schools throughout the watershed and beyond.

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Bonner teacher Lesa Homer, surrounded by her students, holds a swan ready to be released.

In past years, 1-year-old or even 2-year-old captive swans were released in the Blackfoot in May.  This year, however, only cygnets hatched last spring were available for release, and they would have been too vulnerable to danger without an adult around, had they been released earlier in the year.  Thus, a September release of gray swans!  The young swans had not yet learned to fly, but were almost old enough to start.

These swans sport no red collars because fitting them safely yet securely on young swans still growing would be risky.  After receiving leg bands, they were all released together.

Into the Wild!

Following the release, students attended five stations where volunteers guided them in learning about different aspects of swans and wetland ecology.

Nature Journaling

Aquatic Invasive Plants

Swan Biology

Aquatic Invasive Mussels

Birdwatching

Meanwhile, the young swans were getting used to their new habitat and freedom.

After their release, the swans spent the next several weeks feeding on the lake and meeting some of their neighbors, adult swans from nearby wetlands that would fly in for brief periods. The cygnets were first seen flying just less than one month later, when they made a big circle toward Ovando and back.  They made similar flights, always returning to their release site, throughout the next few weeks.  They were joined on the lake by 0V6, a swan that was released here in 2013 and spent the summer on a nearby wetland.  Together, they all flew to a lake a couple of miles to the northwest and spent more of the fall there.  They had all left the valley, very likely together, by the time the cold snap arrived in November.  This was the first time we have observed newly released swans joining with older, experienced migrants to head south.

 

Summer Update

The Blackfoot Trumpeter Swan population continues to grow, with more swans returning to the watershed this year and cygnets hatching from two nests.  We had a record number of five pairs attempt to nest this spring.  Three of those failed before or at hatching, from as of yet unknown causes.  The other two pairs hatched five cygnets each!  Unfortunately, one of those pairs lost four of their five within the first week, likely due to predators.  But the remaining cygnets seem to be thriving.  It is amazing how fast they grow, and every day’s growth makes them safer from potential predators.

While it’s disappointing to see nests fail and cygnets disappear, it’s very common for most birds. In fact, in most bird species over half of all nests fail, and that can rise to over 75% for some waterfowl.  The majority of those failures are due to predation, but weather, disturbance, and lack of food can also cause nests to fail.

A pair of swans may nest for several years, laying many eggs and hatching multiple cygnets, before enough survive to reproduce and keep the population stable.  When a population is very small and trying to reestablish, such as in the Blackfoot, any loss can seem significant.  Fortunately, with each year that swans have nested here, we’ve had cygnets survive and return to the valley.  And this year we have at least two swans paired up that were likely hatched in the Blackfoot 2 or 3 years ago!

Remember that our swan release will be in early September this year.  We are still in the process of finalizing the date, and as soon as it is known we’ll share it via the website and through emails.

Thanks again to everyone who sends in sightings.  It really helps to increase our knowledge of the swan population and locations.

Spring Swans

This spring has brought positive signs for the Blackfoot Trumpeter Swan Restoration Project.  At least five pairs have established or returned to territories here in the valley.  Other swans have returned and may be in the process of setting up new territories in the area.  The only pair known to successfully raise young last summer and migrate south with them last fall was sighted in southwestern Montana this winter, and the family of 2 adults and 2 surviving cygnets returned to the Ovando area in March, along with many other swans.

Several unbanded swans have also been sighted here this spring.  These are very likely swans that hatched here in the Blackfoot in 2011 and 2012 and have been returning from their wintering locations each year.  Although they don’t have bands, each year since the first cygnets hatched in the valley we have seen them return in the spring with their parents.  Although positive identification can’t be made once they have their adult plumage, it’s highly likely that at least most of the unbanded swans we now see are those first generation Blackfoot trumpeters.  In fact, some of those are old enough that they may begin to set up territories of their own this year, and we could have a second generation hatching here in the next year or so!

One change to the Swan Restoration Project this year is in the release of young birds.  Due to variation in the availability of the swans raised in captivity, this year we will have cygnets rather than 1-year-old swans to release.  Because these younger swans will be more vulnerable to mortality without adults to guide and protect them, especially before they can fly, they won’t be released into the wild until early this fall.  That will give them time to grow bigger, stronger, and wiser before being on their own.  There is a good chance that after their release they will join up with older Blackfoot swans, giving them opportunities to learn from them before beginning migration later in the fall.

The Blackfoot Swan Release will be in early September this year.  Stay tuned for a specific date as more information becomes available.  And in the meantime, don’t forget to look for the big white birds in local wetlands and turn your sightings in to the Blackfoot Challenge or enter them online at www.blackfootchallenge.org/SwanProject!