Join our efforts in 2021 to help conserve trumpeter swans and swan habitat in Waterton Biosphere Reserve (WBR) by helping maintain healthy ponds, lakes, and wetlands used by swans; by reporting where you see swans in WBR; and by volunteering to help monitor swans. Contact Elizabeth for more information on how you can help – firstname.lastname@example.org or 403-563-0058. Scroll down to Stewardship Opportunities for 2021 for more details.
Why Waterton Biosphere Reserve Swans Are Unique
Trumpeter swans represent a species-at-risk success story at the continental scale with populations rebounding from a historic low of 130 breeding adults (due to overhunting and habitat loss) to over 63,000 birds. Waterton Biosphere Reserve is the summer home of a breeding subpopulation of trumpeter swans, separate from others near Grande Prairie and points north in Alberta or from birds further south in Montana. Yet, our unique breeding subpopulation of migratory trumpeter swans is not increasing in the same way. The number of occupied waterbodies and number of successful broods produced has not increased for the past two decades.
Trumpeter swans migrating through the area in spring and fall may also be using wetlands for short periods of time for feeding, resting, and building energy reserves. These important stopover habitats are largely undocumented in Waterton Biosphere Reserve.
Both trumpeter and tundra swans are large, white birds with unusually long and graceful necks. Rusty-orange staining on the feathers of the head and upper neck may occur when swans feed in lakes with sediments that are high in iron. The most reliable differences are found in their vocalizations and the appearance of their bills.
Trumpeter swan vocalizations are deep, resonant, bugle-like calls that are more nasal-sounding than tundra swans. Tundra swan vocalizations, on the other hand, are softer, higher pitched, and mellow woo-oo-woo calls.
To listen to and differentiate between a trumpeter and tundra swan call click here.
Adult trumpeter swans have black bills, though the pinkish red inside their mouth can sometimes be seen as a red line between the bills, seemingly giving them a “grin”. Tundra swans, on the other hand, have a black bill with yellowish pigmentation in front of the eye. The spot can be small and occasionally absent, but if you see yellow, you are likely looking at a tundra swan. Trumpeter swans have a more angular head and beak with the slope of their crown matching the slope of the bill, while tundra swans have a more concave bill profile. When looking at the junction of the beak and head between the eyes, tundra swans have a U-shape and trumpeter swans typically have a V-shape.
Not all big white birds are created equal! Southern Alberta is home to, or along the migratory route, of other larger-bodied white birds that might be mistaken for trumpeter swans at a distance or quick glance. Of course, trumpeter and tundra swans are the easiest to confuse, and although tundra swans are the smaller of the two species, size can be hard to discern when the two species aren’t right next to one another.
Snow geese are about half the size of swans, with pink bills and black wing tips visible when in flight. Swan bodies are entirely white in flight and adult trumpeter swans have a black bill. American white pelicans also have black wing tips visible in flight, but they will fly with their neck tucked back rather than outstretched. And the long yellow beak on pelicans is distinctive whether in flight or on water.
Trumpeter swans that move into and through Waterton Biosphere Reserve in the spring, summer, and fall are part of the Rocky Mountain population. Most trumpeter swans breeding in Alberta migrate north from the United States in spring and return south in fall.
Some of the trumpeter swans arriving in spring in Waterton Biosphere Reserve will stick around to breed through the spring and summer. Some will stop briefly en route to their breeding waterbodies further north in northern Alberta, northern British Columbia, and Yukon. Trumpeter swans typically return to the same area where they were hatched to raise their own young.
Loss or formation of ice cover on waterbodies drives trumpeter swan migration in both spring and fall, with staging flocks using wetlands, rivers, and lakes (also known as stopover sites) before moving onward. As swans sometimes reach breeding areas in Alberta during spring freeze/thaw cycles, the birds must arrive with sufficient energy reserves to carry them through to nesting, and begin nesting as soon as possible after arrival. Maintaining healthy and undisturbed stopover habitat is an important way Waterton Biosphere Reserve residents can support trumpeter swans.
Trumpeter swans migrating through Waterton Biosphere Reserve in fall are heading south, where overwintering birds concentrate at ice-free sites including freshwater streams, rivers, springs, and reservoirs. Many Alberta swans overwinter in the Tri-State area, where Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming meet, due to the geothermal activity and weather patterns that keep numerous waterbodies open year-round. Nearby croplands and pasture are used for foraging. Some swans tough it out through the southwestern Alberta winter – they are often seen in Waterton Lakes National Park through the coldest months of the year – but most Alberta swans are true snowbirds that migrate south.
Trumpeter swan pairs stay together throughout the year and often migrate and winter in family groups and with other waterfowl, including tundra swans and Canada geese.
In 2015, WBRA’s Species at Risk Plan identified a need to increase public and landowner awareness of threats to trumpeter swans as well as identified data gaps with respect to wetlands used by non-breeding swans or by migrating swans moving through WBR. The last 5-yr North American Trumpeter Swan Survey was completed in 2015 and no subsequent surveys are planned given the continental population expansion. But locally, the number of cygnets produced and number of wetlands occupied has not changed in the last two decades. In response to these various factors WBRA initiated a project to aid in the conservation of trumpeter swans in southwestern Alberta.
The WBRA’s Stewarding Trumpeter Swans Through the Seasons project began in March 2021. In addition to an education and outreach campaign to increase awareness of the species and its habitat, this project will identify important trumpeter swan wetlands within WBR, determine ownership of the wetlands and surrounding land, and then work with relevant landowners to address potential impacts and appropriate stewardship practices. Healthy wetlands that can support trumpeter swans also support a great diversity of other wildlife and plant species.
As we launch our Stewarding Trumpeter Swans Through the Seasons project this year, we want to know where and when you see swans – maybe the swans are there temporarily during migration or stay for the summer either breeding or loafing (akin to teenagers just hanging out). Maintaining healthy and undisturbed stopover habitat is an important way Waterton Biosphere Reserve residents can support trumpeter swans.
We are also recruiting volunteer bird watchers willing to help count swans on specific waterbodies during spring and fall migration. Contact us if this interests you! See infographic to the left for details.
With this in mind, trumpeter swans like their privacy during the summer. You may be familiar with the May 1 to July 31 seasonal closure at the Police Outpost Provincial Park wetlands. This closure minimizes disturbance to nesting trumpeter swans as they may be disturbed by humans moving on foot within 700 m of their nest site. So somebody walking almost half a mile away can cause them to leave their nest!
Disturbances can result in extended absences from the nest, nest failure from eggs cooling or predators eating the eggs, or cygnet loss through disrupted feeding.
Accordingly, WBRA will be taking a break from trumpeter swan field work to respect the swans’ need for peace and privacy during the critical egg laying, hatching, and early rearing stages. Swan project staff will be back at it later in the summer with more swan work and information about what trumpeters are doing through the fall.
In addition to meeting with landowners who have swans using waterbodies on their lands, the WBR Conservation Biologist will be coordinating and training volunteers in swan identification and data collection for swan migration monitoring. Spring training has already occurred with a potential for a fall training session. Drop Elizabeth a line to join our trumpeter swan project this year or to report your swan sightings – email@example.com or 403-563-0058.
Broad reporting of swan sightings provides information on distribution and timing of habitat use. When reporting sightings, please be sure to report the number of swans, species if it can be determined, a detailed description of where the waterbody is located as well as your contact information.
Trained volunteers will search assigned areas to collect information on swan presence during a survey, the numbers and age classes (i.e., adults vs cygnets), as well as habitat information. This will help the WBRA determine if swans have the potential to expand their distribution in WBR over time or how best to support swan habitat at migratory stopover sites. Surveys will take place from observation stations around a given waterbody, ideally with enough observation stations to ensure the entire wetland is observed by the end of the survey. Although hiking to an observation station would likely provide access to better viewpoints and more isolated areas, swan behaviour indicates they react more strongly to people on foot compared to in a vehicle. Accordingly, vehicle-based surveys will be used whenever possible.
Although we are most interested in trumpeter swan presence on a waterbody, volunteers are welcome to record data on other bird species and numbers, particularly for diving ducks or waterbirds (including sandhill cranes, great blue herons, and American white pelicans), during their time at a wetland.
Migration surveys will take place in March and April and then again in late September/early October through to the end of November to determine migrating swan numbers on particular waterbodies used for stopover sites.
The WBRA Conservation Biologist will conduct post-breeding surveys in August and early September to count breeding pairs and cygnets prior to their first flights. In limited circumstances when wetlands can be observed safely from a distance, the Conservation Biologist may monitor breeding wetlands in May, June, or July to check whether swans successfully hatched eggs. This monitoring would help us determine when and/or why particular nests fail.
Voracious vegetarians – that’s one way to describe the trumpeter swan’s food habits. Although they will occasionally eat small fish and fish eggs, swans consume large quantities of plants, particularly emergent plants that are rooted in the sediment with their stems, flowers, and leaves rising above the water. Adults will forage on shoots, roots, and tubers of these aquatic plants at depths of up to 1 m. A high abundance of aquatic insects is also important at breeding ponds, given that young swans (known as cygnets) forage on insects for the first few weeks of life.
Swans will feed like dabbling ducks, tipping their bottoms up into the air as they reach beneath the water surface. They root with their beaks at the bottom of the pond or lake to twist and pull up vegetation. They will also sometimes free roots for themselves or their young by paddling their large feet in or above the mud.
As they prepare (or “stage”) for migration, trumpeter swan individuals, pairs, and families gather in larger groups on open water to feed before heading south when ice begins forming. A few swans may linger into November or occasionally longer.
Migrating trumpeter swans from the Rocky Mountain population are thought to travel along a relatively narrow flyway that follows the eastern front of the Rocky Mountains, with migration stopover sites providing critical habitat to increase reserves for onward migration. Suitable stopover wetlands may be more limited in availability than breeding habitat, and maintenance of habitat quality and quantity at this restricted network of sites is important. But we also know relatively little about the location of such sites in Waterton Biosphere Reserve.
Trumpeter swans prefer to nest in shallow wetlands with irregular shorelines and plentiful vegetation (including both submerged vegetation and emergent vegetation, which is rooted in the bottom of the waterbody but growing to extend above the water). In Waterton Biosphere Reserve, this includes lakes and ponds as well as wetlands adjacent to rivers. The size of waterbodies selected by swans varies, but because they are such a heavy-bodied bird, they require an unobstructed distance of approximately 100 m (328 ft) for takeoff. Breeding pairs are sensitive to disturbance so they are most often found on waterbodies with low levels of human activity.
Nests are found in areas with good visibility within or adjacent to the waterbody, and are often on slightly elevated features, such as sites offered by muskrat houses, beaver dams, small islands, or peninsulas. Stable water levels are important to prevent nests from getting flooded. Pairs can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to over a month to construct a nest, but the same pair may reuse a nest site year after year.
Trumpeter swans form pairs at 3-4 years of age with their first mating at 4-7 years. The courtship ritual sees both individuals taking turns bobbing their heads while vocalizing back and forth as well as extending their impressive wings. Once paired, the mates are monogamous and generally stay together for life, which probably helps them learn together from each successive nesting and parenting effort.
Both adults gather material for the nest while females place the material and incubate the eggs. The pair usually lays 4 to 6 eggs in the 3 m diameter nest. Hatching occurs in late May or early June after a 32-37 day incubation. Unfortunately, trumpeter swans will not re-nest in a given year if their nest fails – annual breeding is a one-shot deal.
Like most waterfowl, trumpeter swan cygnets are ready to leave the nest within a few hours of hatching. By 9–10 weeks of age, cygnets are fully feathered though their first flight is still about a month away. Young trumpeter swans are light grey and get their mature white plumage as they age. Whereas tundra swan cygnets will turn white by the end of their first winter, trumpeter swan cygnets will not molt their grey feathers until the summer of their second year.
If you see swans and cygnets on any ponds or lakes in Waterton Biosphere Reserve from early August to late September, be sure to let us know by dropping an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 403-563-0058.
Trumpeter Swans have survived in captivity for up to 35 years, but in the wild, most breeding swans probably live no longer than 20 years. The key to swan survival is to make it through the first year of life: young cygnets experience survival rates of 40-80% while adult swans typically have annual survival rates ranging from 80-100%.
Natural causes of mortality include disease and parasites, exposure or starvation during severe winter conditions, and predation (particularly of eggs and chicks by coyotes, foxes, raccoons, owls, and golden eagles). You can read more about human-caused threats to trumpeter swans in the Waterton Biosphere Reserve in the Threats section below.
This can result from agricultural or industrial activities, wetland drainage, water diversion, and loss of aquatic shoreline vegetation (i.e., vegetation with stems, flowers, and leaves rising above the water).
Swans tend to fly lower than other waterfowl species and are less nimble in flight (more like a passenger airplane than a fighter jet). Mortalities can occur from collisions with powerlines near waterbodies used by swans. Similarly, fence lines through or adjacent to waterbodies can create a potential collision risk for swans.
Breeding trumpeter swans are very sensitive to human disturbance than can arise from foot traffic, loud vehicle traffic, boating and off-highway vehicle use, urban expansion, and industrial development.
Trumpeter swans like their privacy during the summer. Spring and summer closures at wetlands in provincial parks found in Waterton Biosphere Reserve help minimize disturbance to nesting trumpeter swans. They may be disturbed by humans moving on foot within 700 m of their nest site; somebody walking half a mile away can cause them to leave their nest!
Disturbances can result in extended absences from the nest, nest failure from eggs cooling or predators eating the eggs, or cygnet loss through disrupted feeding.
Changes in water levels on ponds or lakes as a result of high water events can swamp nests and result in loss of eggs.
Despite some bans on lead ammunition and fishing tackle, residual pellets and weights collect at the bottoms of many waterbodies and are a legacy problem for waterfowl. Trumpeter swans, with their long neck and ability to forage in the pond sediments, are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning – only 3 pellets can kill an adult swan.
For more information on trumpeter swans you can visit the Trumpeter swan Society’s webpage here. Their site is an excellent resource for swan identification, information on swan behaviour, resources for teachers, and much more!
We want to acknowledge and send out a huge thank you to the supporters of our Stewarding Trumpeter Swans Through the Seasons project, Shell Canada-Foothills Legacy Fund, Wildlife Habitat Canada, and Alberta North American Waterfowl Management Plan Partnership. We greatly appreciate your support and look forward to the months ahead!