RAVALLI — In the slipstream of thousands of snow geese, Montana’s biggest waterfowl has resumed residence in area wetlands.
“We’re not just getting established pairs, but some of the young ones from past years are coming back,” Ovando resident Elaine Caton said of the trumpeter swans returning to nest in the Blackfoot River Valley. “And some pairs have brought their cygnets from last year with them.”
With wingspans of up to 8 feet that can loft their 30-pound bodies, trumpeter swans make a remarkable find for spring birdwatchers. Nesting pairs can be spotted in the Mission and Flathead valleys north of Missoula, the wetlands between Ovando and Lincoln to the east, and the Bitterroot pond networks south of town.
“We should have trumpeter pairs occupying nest sites soon,” said Confederated Salish and Kootenai Wildlife Program manager Dale Becker. “I checked eight or nine sites (last week) but nobody looked very serious yet. They need to be dropping on eggs not too far after the first of May.”
An easy-to-spot pair was checking out a pond island on the south edge of the National Bison Range last Saturday, prompting motorists to stop at the Highway 93 picnic turnout just below Ravalli Hill. One bird had a red collar with orange lettering, distinguishing it as part of the CSKT swan recovery program. Becker said at least 60 fledglings from those swans matured to migrate last fall.
Montana trumpeter swans typically fly no farther south than the Ruby and Centennial valleys of southwestern Montana for the winter, where the temperatures are warm enough to provide open water. But they may get a little scrambled on the return north.
“We know some of our birds released here in the Blackfoot have ended up on the east side of the Continental Divide,” Caton said. “Some end up in Helena or Great Falls. There are some by East Glacier. And we had one that spent the past few summers up in British Columbia.”
The Blackfoot Challenge Adopt-A-Swan program has been transplanting and releasing trumpeter swans in their historic habitat since 2003. At least six swan sites get regular updates on the Blackfoot Challenge Adopt-A-Swan map, available on the internet. While many of the sites are on private land, bird watchers can often catch a glimpse of the birds at Browns and Kleinschmidt lakes east of Ovando.
Trumpeter swans grow slightly larger than tundra swans, although it can be difficult to distinguish unless both species appear side by side. Trumpeters move more slowly on the ground, compared to the prancing tundras. They also have all-black face masks, while tundra swans have yellow specks between their black bills and eye marks.
A long, cold spring has produced a bottleneck in the northern migration this year. The result was hundreds of thousands of snow geese, along with big flocks of trumpeter and tundra swans and other waterfowl. The Freezout Lake birding rest stop near Choteau had one of its best viewing years because most northern wetlands were overdue in thawing out. Many of those birds appear to have explored alternative destinations west of the Continental Divide.
“Usually we see more tundra swans, but this year it’s been more trumpeters,” said Libby bird expert Brian Baxter of Silver Cloud Associates, a natural history education program. “It’s been running 50- to 55-percent trumpeters, which is a little unusual. They’ve been in the waterways from northern Idaho through the Kootenai River and on to the Thompson Chain of Lakes. Birders have been seeing 20 to 25 species in a day. It’s all been pretty good.”