Trumpeter Swan Monitoring
From 2005-2020, 214 trumpeter swans have been released in the Blackfoot through a partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Blackfoot Challenge. Between 5 and 43 birds were released each year. We release young swans that have been raised in captivity at a special facility, and have not yet learned to fly. They spend the summer on the wetland in the Blackfoot where they are released and they bond to the place where they learn to fly, so they are likely to return here in the spring during migration. Each swan is marked with a red and white leg band that has a unique number and letter code so individuals can be identified. Swans that are at least a year old are also fitted with a matching neck collar, which is much easier to read.
Since 2005, there have been over 3,500 sightings of swans reported by the biologists and almost 100 additional observers, and at least 35 marked swans have been seen in the watershed in years after their release. Several of these are observed in the watershed each year, and they are nesting and raising their own young here.
In 2010, the first territory was established in the watershed and the first successful nesting occurred in 2011, when two nests fledged a total of 6 cygnets. The numbers of nests and young swans produced have climbed gradually since 2010. In 2019, we confirmed 8 active nests in the Blackfoot. Although there were two fewer active nests in 2020, a record number of 20 cygnets survived to fledging.
In 2019 we began to put GPS collars on non-nesting adult swans in the Blackfoot. We are able to do this relatively easily during the swans’ flightless period in summer. At that time a few people in kayaks can paddle after a swan and corral it as it tires from swimming and lift it into a kayak. It’s a safe and relatively low-stress way to capture a huge bird. (Watch a video of it here!) The collars are extremely lightweight and we’ve seen no evidence that they hinder the swans. We check on those swans in the days after collaring to make sure there are no adverse effects. We collared two swans in 2019 and two more in 2020.
Although we get a lot of helpful information from our sightings of swans and those by local observers, being able to track the daily locations of some birds adds a tremendous amount to our understanding of how swans use the landscape. We have learned that they use wetlands we didn’t know about or can’t get to easily, and that they move around a lot during the summer. This helps us know which areas and kinds of wetlands provide the best habitat for swans, and can allow us to prioritize things like marking powerlines in places that they frequent.
Swan Movements in the Blackfoot
This map shows the locations and movements of one swan that we collared in July 2020, from the time we put the collar on until it flew south out of the Blackfoot in October. Some of the blue squares represent multiple days in one location. We only actually saw and identified this swan by its collar four times during the summer, but we now know where it spent every day. This data also helps us know where to concentrate our efforts to look for other swans, and get more accurate counts of their population numbers.
Swan #10 left the Blackfoot on October 26, 2020, the weekend of an early winter storm, and flew approximately 126 miles to Alder, MT. The Ruby River Valley around Sheridan and Alder is where many of the Blackfoot swans winter.
Most winter sightings of swans released in the Blackfoot have been in southwestern Montana and southeastern Idaho. Most marked wintering swans (21) have been sighted in the Ruby River Valley near the town of Sheridan, just a little over 60 miles from the Blackfoot. The longest movement confirmed was that of Swan 6A5, which was observed in the early spring of 2012 on the Colorado River near the town of Blythe in southern California.
We have confirmed a total of 43 trumpeter swan mortalities since our restoration efforts began. Most of these occurred in the watershed within the first six years. Swan mortalities are caused by a variety of factors, though many remain unknown.
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Submit Your Observation!
Have you seen a trumpeter swan with a red neck band or leg band recently? Public observations are critical to the success of our monitoring program. You can visit our Enter a Swan Sighting page to log your observation, and also visit our Track A Swan page to see where this swan may have been sighted before.