Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge’s Tom Reed had a nice surprise to start his week.
“I spotted two little fuzzballs this morning,” Reed said. “They appeared to be about a day old.”
The two little fuzzballs were trumpeter swan cygnets — the first hatched in the Bitterroot Valley in recent memory.
Reed spotted the two tiny birds swimming with their parents in a remote pond after stopping to take a look from one of the maintenance roads in the interior of the refuge north of Stevensville.
“They were pecking at the water and the vegetation around them,” he said. “Both adults were with them.”
The cygnets are the first documented wild trumpeter swan cygnets in the Bitterroot since restoration efforts began decades ago to bring the huge majestic birds back from the brink of extinction in the lower 48 states.
If the cygnets and their parents survive, it could mark the beginning of the Bitterroot Valley's role in in perpetuating what’s been a well-documented conservation success story for the nation’s largest native waterfowl. Trumpeter swans can grow up to 6 feet long and have a wingspan that can top 10 feet.
Reed first spotted a swan that appeared to be nesting on a muskrat lodge in the first week of June. He’s kept a close eye on her since, while carefully regulating the pond depth to ensure the nest didn’t get washed away.
“I was a little disappointed there weren’t more,” Reed said Monday. “Normally a clutch will have between two and six cygnets. … Still, this is really good news.”
Visitors might be able to see the cygnets from the observation point on the Kenai Trail, but Reed said visitors need to give the new family plenty of space.
“We certainly don’t want anyone to go beyond where the trail is open to them,” he said. “At least now, since they’ve popped out of the nest, they are more mobile and can seek seclusion as they need it.”
If the cygnets can survive a multitude of predators that run the gamut from big bass to hawks, raven and raccoons, the birds could return someday to rear their own broods in the Bitterroot Valley.
Since swans are long-lived birds — some live well into their 30s — Reed said there is a good chance the cygnets’ parents will return next year to attempt to raise another brood.
“Since they were successful, they may try to come back to the same pond,” he said.
They cygnets will remain with their parents through their first year.
“They’ll fly as a family flock and then break up next spring when the adults start to nest,” he said.