Peering through the cattails, the large white bird stood out amongst several Canada geese and mallards as enormous. Could this be the largest North American waterfowl species?
While Teller is commonly visited by Tundra swans, this bird immediately sparked my curiosity by its size, particularly its long neck, extending several feet in length. With the aid of binoculars and photographs, it was confirmed as a large adult trumpeter swan. I could not distinguish whether this bird was a “cob” (male) or “pen” (female) and it appeared to be alone and likely will not be joining a mate to produce “cygnets” (young) this year.
Thought to be nearing extinction in the late 1800s due to over-harvesting, this magnificent bird represents a true conservation success story involving public and private interests and today we can celebrate as trumpeter swan populations rebound.
Although Montana still has the species listed as a “Species of Concern,” recent expansion of breeding pairs in western Montana is a positive sign that numbers are increasing throughout the intermountain range. A survey estimated Continental population of 11,000 birds in the late 1960s and subsequent surveys conducted every 5 years revealed 63,000 Trumpeters in 2015.
At the forefront of the trumpeter swan recovery were important measures like the Migratory Bird Treaty act that prevented commercial harvest of species like swans and allowed for a slow rebuild of the population and the establishment of National Wildlife Refuges like Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge where what were thought at the time to be the last few breeding Trumpeters were found in 1932.
Today, nearly 500 trumpeters reside on this refuge that is located within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem of the tri-state area of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Also credited with trumpeter swan recovery is the nonprofit Trumpeter Swan Society whose sole mission is, to assure the vitality and welfare of wild trumpeter swans. Margaret Smith, the organization’s executive director, confirmed the Teller photograph of the trumpeter stating, “It might be associated with a group of trumpeters wintering in Oregon. This may be a sub-adult that lost its way or an adult swan in search of a mate and nesting area.”
Swans mate for life and unless this is a sub-adult or an adult that lost its mate, adult birds should be paired up and headed to their nesting grounds where they will typically choose the same nest site year after year. Nest sites are usually built up with bulrush and cattails, sometimes on muskrat mounds out over water. The next can be quite large, measuring 10 feet across with a bowl shape depression holding 4-6 eggs.
As the Teller trumpeter took flight it sounded off its distinct call that sounded like a series of off key trumpet notes. The call is one sure way to differentiate between its smaller cousin, the Tundra Swan that has a higher pitched whooooo-whoooo call.
In the Bitterroot, tundra swans can be seen and heard in November, migrating south through the valley on their way to the Great Salt Lake. The tundra swan is smaller (20 pounds) and possesses a small yellow patch near the lore of the bill where it joins the feathered portion of the head. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, some trumpeters will have a small yellow patch near the lore, but for the most part, the lack of the yellow spot and the larger size are good ways to know it is a trumpeter.
Trumpeters’ long necks allow them to reach several feet under water to feed on aquatic vegetation. Often referred to as a barometer of healthy wetlands, trumpeters, like many waterfowl, depend on clear unpolluted wetlands with a diverse aquatic plant growth to survive.
Unfortunately, poisoning from lead sinkers or split shot found in and around the wetlands where trumpeters feed is the number one cause of mortality.
Number two is collisions with power lines. Weighing in at 30 pounds with a wing span of 10 feet, the trumpeter must still paddle their large webbed fee to assist themselves when they take flight and they are not as quick to avoid air traffic as a smaller bird. Attempts to mark the power lines in areas where trumpeters routinely fly near wintering or breeding areas have reduced some of the often fatal collisions. Hence, it is apparent the value of many private, state, and federal refuges that strive to maintain and protect healthy wetland ecosystems.
Watching this trumpeter once again reminded me of how important conservation properties like Teller are by providing undisturbed stopover habitat for species like the trumpeter. Even if it was just a few days, the resting and foraging habitat provided to this bird will ensure that it will depart to Canada or Alaska in good shape. My hope is that this bird returns next year with a mate to consider raising a brook on Teller.
Sam Lawry, Teller Wildlife Refuge Executive Director has 35 plus years in the wildlife conservation profession. His contributions to the Ravalli Republic are intended to share some of that knowledge of wildlife in the Bitterroot with the community. If you would like more information about Teller Wildlife Refuge please visit our website at www.tellerwildlife.org.