It’s hard to complain about precipitation in a dry year like this one, but Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Manager Tom Reed is hoping that Wednesday night’s short-lived hail storm missed the refuge.
Earlier this week, Reed spotted six baby swan cygnets swimming on the refuge’s remote ponds.
It’s the third year in a row that a pair of trumpeter swans has produced a brood in the Bitterroot Valley.
“It hailed like no one’s business at my house last night,” Reed said. “Hail can be a death knell for swans. If they can make it through today, it will be a good thing. The weather is supposed to get warmer and more settled.”
Reed spent five years working at the remote Red Rocks National Refuge that once served as the stronghold for the last significant population of trumpeter swans in the lower 48 states. He’s seen the damage that hail can do to the tiny white baby birds.
“Our concern was there was always hail in the spring,” Reed said. “At Red Rocks, it tended to wipe them out.”
Reed spotted the cygnets on Monday through a binocular.
“When I first saw the little fluff balls, I counted four,” he said. “When I got a little closer, I saw five. At that point, I decided I needed to go get my scope. Lo and behold, once I had that, I counted six.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen six cygnets before,” Reed said. “I flew a lot of nests when I was working at Red Rocks. We flew the Madison, Yellowstone, southeast Idaho and all the way to the elk refuge. I think the most I’ve ever seen before is five.”
Two years ago, a pair of trumpeter swans produced the first documented wild trumpeter swan cygnets in the Bitterroot since restoration efforts began decades ago to bring the birds back from the brink of extinction in the lower 48 states.
The first year, the swans had two cygnets. Last year, they raised three.
Last year’s cygnets spent a good deal of time in the pond near the refuge’s headquarters. They were a common sight for people driving through the refuge.
Trumpeter swans can live well into their 30s. The hope is that cygnets reared at the refuge will return someday to the Bitterroot Valley to raise their own broods. They can grow to be 6 feet long with a wingspan that can top 10 feet.
Reed said he’s doing everything he can to keep the water levels as steady as possible in the pond where he spotted the birds.
“A lot of what happens now will be contingent on what comes after the rain stops,” he said. “If those little guys get wet and then cold, they may have a hard time. Every day that they survive is like exponentially a good thing for their chances of survival.”