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!

 

 

Fall Flights

Blackfoot Valley Trumpeter Swans are moving about the valley in preparation for their fall migration.  On a small lake in the Ovando area a few days ago, twenty-one trumpeters were found resting along the shore.  It was quite a sight to come over a hill and see all those big white birds!  Five more swans were on a nearby wetland.

This group was a great sample of the swans in our watershed.  It included nine of the ten young swans released last spring a few miles away, as well as a few that were released last year and spent the summer exploring various wetlands in the valley, and at least two of our pairs that had territories but were not successful at nesting this year (see previous posts for more information on the nesting season).  There were also four swans with no bands at all, who likely are first-generation Blackfoot Watershed swans hatched in 2011or 2012, now sporting their fully white adult plumage.

Not found in this group but present on another lake was the family of two adults and three cygnets that represent the successful nest in the watershed this year.  These cygnets hatched on July 4, and just recently started to fly.  In spite of their short period of physical training, these young birds will need to be strong enough to make a migration journey with their parents sometime in the next few weeks!

Blackfoot Valley Trumpeter Swan family in early October, 2013

Blackfoot Valley Trumpeter Swan family in early October, 2013

They will likely spend the winter in southwestern Montana, as many Blackfoot Valley swans have in the past few years, taking advantage of open water near warm springs in the Ruby River Valley.  Large ranches there, some with restored wetlands, provide a wintering haven for swans, and a number of interested local citizens keep an eye on our “shared” swans and let us know their whereabouts until they head north again in the spring.

 

Interesting Summer for Swans

This has been an interesting summer for the Blackfoot Trumpeter Swan Project. We had a record number of six pairs of swans set up (or return to) territories this year; very exciting news indeed.  Four of those pairs actually nested (another record number), but unfortunately only one nest succeeded in hatching young.  A wild storm with heavy rain and strong winds in June likely contributed to the failure of at least some of the nests.  The nests that failed included our two previously successful nests as well as a first attempt by a new pair.  These events certainly emphasize the relative fragility of the low populations of species like the swans, and the importance of ongoing efforts at protecting and enhancing their numbers.

However, the success of a pair that has been struggling for years to nest is very welcome indeed!  This territory was first established on a restored wetland on a private ranch in the valley by swan 6P3, who was released in 2008 in the Ovando area.  In 2010 she settled with 9P9 and set up a territory.  6P3 and 9P9 returned the following spring , likely ready to nest for the first time.  Unfortunately, a few days later 9P9 was found dead under a power line and 6P3 was left alone.

6P3 remained faithful to the territory and stayed there alone that summer.  She returned in the spring of 2012 to her territory, this time with another mate.  (This new swan had no bands, so either it has lost its bands or it is a wild swan from elsewhere that was never banded.)  After a few weeks on the wetland, they built a nest and began laying eggs in the spring.  The nest last year failed, but perseverance paid off finally for 6P3 when she and her mate hatched four cygnets on July 4 of this year!

One of the cygnets disappeared around July 22, but the three remaining cygnets seem to be healthy and growing fast.NL family July 2013

 

The ten swans released in May are still on the lake and associated wetlands where they were released.  They have been joined off and on by swans released last year, as well as some of our Blackfoot swans hatched here in 2011.

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Please continue to send us your swan sightings this summer and fall, as opportunities for seeing trumpeter swans in the Blackfoot continue to increase!