By Ned and Gigi Batchelder
Beginning in early spring of 2021, there appeared a pair of swans in low flight near our residence in close proximity to the Sheridan County Airport. We first observed them two different times headed northwesterly. It was unusual, but exhilarating, observing these graceful flyers with a wing span of 6-8 feet and elegant elongated necks. Could these actually be Trumpeters; and were they “local”?
The world’s largest waterfowl, the Trumpeter Swan, (Olor buccinator), has remarkably augmented its population since its almost total demise in 1933, when only 66 known individuals existed.
Exterminated for its food and lovely feathers, even the feather quills were used for writing pens. This swan, differentiated by the lack of yellow (eye) lores, sports a distinct solid black bill-to-eye pattern, and inhabits parts of the Northwest U.S. and Canada. Its salmon colored stripe marking at the base of its bill, or grin line, is diagnostic for this species. This magnificent swan is named for its deep “soul stirring” trumpeting call, which resonates broadly.
While birding duck species on ponds along the west side of the highway a few miles south of Story, Wyoming, a pair of Trumpeter Swans were observed and photographed by friend, Rod Adams, on April 30, 2022. When photographed, the pair was comfortably sleeping upon the pond bank with their heads tucked on their back between their folded wings.
Approximately 20 miles away days later, the same possible Trumpeter pair were viewed by falconer friend, Pete Widener, on his ranch pond northwest of Big Horn, WY. His sighting on 5/9/2022 further added a twist to this intriguing story because the male Trumpeter Swan was leg banded. 3A6, a plastic RED colored right-leg band, revealed original banding data from the North American Bird Banding Database, Laurel, Maryland (USGS). After reporting, the ‘ Certificate of Appreciation’ issued from the Lab, disclosed further information that this male Trumpeter was originally banded on 9/8/2016 in his first year of life near Ovando, MT. He also wore a less conspicuous metal band that read 1959-02315 on his left leg. Thus, the banded male Trumpeter Swan was confirmed to be in his seventh year of life when first reported in 2022. Research shows that swan mating and breeding behavior begins after approximately 4 years, and they remain mates for life.
As per longevity records, the oldest known banded Trumpeter Swan is documented to be 26 years, 2 months old, which occurred in Wisconsin.
During that same timeframe, Pete also witnessed an agitated pair of Canada Geese exhibiting unfriendly demeanor and evicting the pair of Trumpeters off their claimed nesting location. Displaying mating behavior, it was believed that the Trumpeters may have been attempting to establish a nesting territory, but were unsuccessful at this locale, and subsequently, exited the area.
A few days later on May 15, 2022, a private landowner witnessed a pair of rare Trumpeter Swans (one with a red leg band), conducting nesting behavior near some cattails on a pond located a few miles southeast from Pete’s ranch. This private landowner and his father had many years experience in Montana with Trumpeter Swan nesting. On 5/29/22, they had viewed one egg in the newly built nest in cattails at their pond near the water’s edge. Normal incubation before hatching for Trumpeter Swans is 33 – 37 days. So it was also confirmed and photographed that it was indeed this same pair of swans that had been witnessed in the area previously wearing the 3A6 RED leg band.
We believe that these could be pioneering nesters in this region of Wyoming and a new record for Sheridan County, since Trumpeters are rare as nesters here. Daily observations continued from a respectable distance at the private property off Metz Road by the owner. Thirty-five days later on 7/4/22, a single cygnet was successfully hatched and was later photographed by Rodney Adams.
According to Wyoming Game and Fish Dept, this was the first confirmed record of nesting Trumpeter Swans in Sheridan County and considered now a pioneering nesting pair. The only other records in the state consist of locations in the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge near Green River, WY, Yellowstone National Park, and a record near Sundance, WY.
By the middle of July, 2022, the adult swans were noted by the landowner to be leaving the one cygnet for a few hours each day. Some investigative work found that the 2 adults were flying to another pond about a mile north on Swaim Road, but returning regularly back to the cygnet. While the cygnet was left alone, it was observed usually staying in the middle of the pond feeding alone. This potentially inexperienced parental behavior concerned us when the young cygnet was left unattended, exposed, and vulnerable. Perhaps there was something we didn’t understand about the intended neglect, or why the adult swans were acting out in this unfavorable way, but it continued for longer periods as time passed. By the end of July, the landowner was not seeing the one cygnet. It was not possible for the cygnet to fly away because young Trumpeter Swans cannot fly until they are at least 100 – 120 days old.
On our frequent visits to the Swaim Road pond, we viewed the pair of adults without the cygnet every time during late July into early August. Possibly the two adults were conducting their annual feather molt and not able to fly back to the cygnet pond a mile away; or possibly the food was more nutritious or preferred at the Swaim pond.
We had a lot of questions.
It was established that the Swan pair had an interest in both ponds. Unknown to us at the time, there may have been even other local ponds they were visiting.
On into September and October, the two adult swans were observed with random checks at the Swaim Road pond. The observed pair, now with brilliant white new plumage, continued active on the water surface, preening and resting along the shoreline at their favored grass bank locations. The RED leg band, on the male Trumpeter, continued to confirm the same mated pair. There remained no further sighting of the single swan cygnet for the season of 2022.
Waves of southern migrating Canada geese moved overhead, in their traditional “V” formations announcing a seasonal weather change. Daily visits to the Swaim pond resumed into the first week of November 2022, with the last sighting of the pair of swans recorded on 11/8/2022. Ice and snow thoroughly covered the pond by the next day. The Trumpeters require open water to forage for food, so their exit was expected. Because of the thermal waters in the Yellowstone Park area, Trumpeters reside there year round so they apparently found open water with a food source somewhere.
Bird reports show some Trumpeter Swans move south during winter where open water remains ice free, but not as far south as the Gulf areas. We would be ready next spring for this pioneering pair of Trumpeter Swans and their probable return for another nesting attempt; and if so, monitor more their intriguing behaviors more thoroughly.
THE NEXT SEASON- 2023 Our beloved pioneering Trumpeter Swan pair returned in April of 2023, and settled on the Swaim pond with a limited space of open water, even though plenty of ice still covered the pond. The small ten by ten foot open water area was apparently minimally sufficient for them to feed and forage for nutritious aquatic plants and insects. On April 12, 2023, both Swans were sitting at a remodeled nest location, which had most likely been utilized by Canada geese in the past years, or even a nesting Sandhill Crane, which was photographically documented by Rod Adams in 2015.
As the ice melted by the first of May, the Swans remained on the pond and were active with courting and nesting behavior. Territorial aggression toward arriving Canada Geese, and a local pair of Geese already nesting at the pond, was often witnessed, as these pioneering nesters made valiant efforts to settle in for the breeding season.
Consistent observation days of the female swan sitting on eggs was recorded, and now our waiting began, and both male and female share with the nesting duties. The maturing swan adults had more experience to put forth this season. Of how many will be hatching is key, and we were optimistic that there would be more than one egg. We, and a few others, would be checking and monitoring the Swan nest activity daily. Estimated at 35 days until hatching, our hopes were high for the miraculous first sighting of fuzzy cygnets by mid-June. Because there was only evidence of a single egg last year, any number beyond that was our greatest hope for this Trumpeter pair.
Around the first of June, a nearby landowner noticed three young curious kids fishing near the swan nest. Because the young fishermen were unknowing to this special and rare event in Sheridan County, the adult landowner quickly gathered the kids away from the area and explained to them the importance of behaving in a respectful and responsible manner around these prized swans. The children excitedly reported spying 5 large eggs in the nest, and were subsequently positive toward the supervision, and attentive to their wildlife education about non disturbance.
Interestingly, the next day, we viewed from a good distance away with optics, that the swans had covered their eggs with a little cattail plant debris. The covering was somewhat elevated, leaving a small mound in the center of the nest cup possibly to assist in camouflage and/or aid with incubation. Perhaps this was another amazing natural defense event toward possible predation, and/or external threats.
The waiting ended June 12, 2023, when four fresh and fluffy swan cygnets were observed timidly departing the nest, and mingling together on the water surface. They remained in close proximity to each other as a family unit, and did not stray far from the shoreline natal nest.
Most likely, these 4 cygnets had hatched more specifically on June 9 or 10, because we had observed days before the June 12 sighting, that the male swan had been sitting with a broader looking body posture atop the nest. His wings were somewhat spread while sitting, probably to cover, dry, and contain the young for the hours and days post hatching.
By mid-June, the fuzzy cygnets were viewed finding floating food on the pond surface. Their natal yolk sac, that they had been living off of inside the egg shell, was depleted. Now the trial of survival had begun for these young ones, for they had a long way to go before attempting first practice flights in September and October.
Currently at 9 days old, (on June 19) all was good so far. They were watched closely on this 2 to 3 acre pond, sticking close to the parent swans who were exposing them to more of their external surroundings each day.
By the end of June, the cygnets were developing their light gray color; and had grown to the size of mallard ducks. Their necks appeared longer, more “swan like”; and they preened alongside their parents while resting on one of their favored grassy bank sites. Their preening was instinctively regular, perhaps stimulated by an itchy irritation caused by their actively growing feathers.
July’s ending days found the active four cygnets resembling the size of a Canada goose. Their accelerated maturation was manifested in their brilliant white feathers.
On August 26, the young Swans, now 77 days old would soon commence with a daily regiment of stretching and flapping aerobic exercises of their expanding wings. During the next 23 days, while monitoring until September 18, an exciting window of “first flight” would open. These young voyeurs, now 100 days old, would be mature enough to attempt their first flight attempts. And so for the next 2 weeks, we would be wide eyed to catch this miraculous event.
For any animal to experience the event of rain for the first time must be a mysterious and curious sensation. At 104 days old, September 22, the cygnets experienced their first rainy day; and it rained all day long. Additionally, it was the same day that first flight behaviors were initially documented. During this special day, a different nature of all six swans was revealed in their erect necks and elevated alertness while they fed and roamed on the pond. It was as if the two adults were possibly telling their young to pay attention and get ready. Around 3 pm that afternoon, we witnessed what was potentially a practice run.
One of the adult swans vocalized and quickly thereafter, all six swans simultaneously were flapping their wings and running atop the pond surface. Splashing erupted on the calm water, and to us, it appeared that the 4 cygnets perhaps had done this before and we had missed it. They utilized the entire length of the pond surface, south to north, and haltingly shut down, coasting on the water before crashing into the cattail edges. There was no liftoff, but they must have had the innate knowledge of this impending call of Nature. All the swans swam back to the grassy bank area afterward, to preen and rest, as the cygnets became more confident with these first flight attempts. Rod and I were speechless, and grinning, after witnessing such an event. The photos he had captured would be even better viewed when zooming in on the active efforts of their running feet, extended wingspan, and protruding long necks.
When checked again at 5:30, all were at the grassy bank and all were sleeping except for one adult, on guard duty. The cygnets were most likely exhausted, and dreaming of the days of wild adventure ahead of them. Possibly they practiced at night as well, since a person who lived near the pond, shared with us that they had heard vocalizing throughout the night. So I checked at darkness during nighttime hours, to find them foraging normally as they did during the daytime.
October 1st, and the cygnets, now 113 days old: practice runs continued and comprised short liftoffs, followed by lowering, running , and skidding on the water surface coming to a stop. The more stiff legged, or normal skiing on the pond surface to a stop, was becoming more perfected. A full airborne lap around the pond was also witnessed.
October 10th: now the cygnets are 122 days old and are often observed in short flights. Today, I noticed that one of the cygnets was acting strangely. While vocalizing, it would roll onto its side and flap its wing on the water surface as if to completely drench the entire side of its body. Was the swan acting out, or maybe inviting play? It was new and odd behavior that I had not witnessed before. Thereafter, the cygnet swam back to the family group to preen and rest on the bank and all seemed normal once again.
October 12: the possible same cygnet was observed distancing itself out on the pond far away from the others. Suddenly, a frenzied behavior of spinning on the water surface began, in which it conducted a complete revolution about every one to two seconds. During this time it stirred up a profusion of water splashing and vocalized. This episode continued for about 20 seconds and attracted the curiosity of its swan family who was resting on the grassy bank. Immediately, they cruised out to the distant cygnet to investigate the disruption. At first I thought that it might be impaired or entangled with something below the surface, but it soon moved away from the area freely. Now the other swans were curiously following it, swimming away as if on a secret mission.
Minutes later the seemingly troubled cygnet was cornered up at the northwest end of the pond along the cattails edge by its parents who began showing a little aggression towards it. As if to escape this chastisement, the said cygnet emerged running on the water for a solo flight around the pond and landed in a residential backyard southeast of the pond about a 100 feet from the edge of the water. At that time the swans could not see each other, but the 2 adults headed towards the wayward cygnet swimming with their 3 young swans in tow.
It was time to contact the local Game and Fish office in Sheridan, thinking that someone might soon report a large swan on their property. Frequent updates would be communicated to the local biologists/technician about the Swan activity. That evening, a fourth cygnet was again seen on the pond, so I surmised that it had returned. Alarmingly, it appeared weak and not looking well at all. Later we had learned two concerned homeowners had noticed the lethargic swan and had carried it back to the pond.
Sadly, one of the 4 cygnets was found to be deceased the next morning at 124 days old. The local Game and Fish technician collected the dead swan to conduct tests to determine its demise.
That evening, another cygnet looked as if it was in trouble, and the next morning on October 13, a second cygnet was found deceased.
October 14: the remaining two cygnets and two adults seemed to be doing OK.
October 15: all for swans observed preening, feeding, and sleeping as normal. We monitored daily checks on them 2 – 3 times per day.
October 16: the two adults seemed okay, but one of the cygnets was missing, and the one remaining cygnet stayed on the pond distancing itself from its parents. This cygnet didn’t seem to be in the best of health, and exhibited sluggishness. Soon, we found out that the State Game and Fish wildlife technician had recovered the third cygnet around noon. These two cygnets would be delivered to the State Game and Fish Wildlife Laboratory the next day in Laramie, WY for tests.
October 17: one cygnet remains alive, but is sadly distancing itself from the adults. Two of the deceased cygnets have been transported to Laramie, WY to a laboratory to determine the cause of their deaths.
October 18: the last and final cygnet is found dead and the two adults were observed at another pond a mile south off Metz Road. After a couple of hours, the 2 surviving adult Trumpeter Swans returned to the Swaim nesting pond and engaged in their normal preening and resting routine and spent time on their favored spot where their four cygnets used to be with them for the last 131 days.
October 19: the local Game and Fish shared the test results of the first cygnet to have been positive for the Avian bird flu, (HPAI, or Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza).
A couple of days later, the same results came back with the other deceased cygnet. At this point, the adults still seemed to be healthy and acting normal in their daily activities.
October 20 and 21: both adult swans shared time on the two mentioned local ponds.
October 23: Two adult swans not seen.
October 24: Early morning observation of 2 adult swans at Swaim nesting pond.
Both appeared healthy and active; roaming the pond perimeters as if to check for their cygnets.
October 25: Swans not seen at 1:30 pm, but were present at 5 pm on Swaim pond.
October 26: Swans feeding at 8 am on open water with 17 degrees F, and 5-6 inches of fresh new snow.
October 27: During the early morning and also about noon the adult pair were photographed sitting on the ice.
Anyone who studies birds and behavior understands that it is a rough and tough life for them to survive. We are reminded that birds have multiple broods and eggs to increase these odds of survival and successfully propagate.
We would wait until April 2024 and hope for their return to nest again and continue to record the activity. We’ll be waiting and watching.
Note: We established a contact at the North American Bird Banding Laboratory and shared this story about the adult male RED leg banded (3A6) Trumpeter Swan; thus initiating a history file. In the future if ever this leg band is ever reported again, perhaps we will then learn more about this banded Swan’s lifestyle.
December 2023 Update:
The last report we have from Swans on the Swaim Rd. pond is from the landowner (Colleen) Dec. 17th at 10:00 when she was headed to town. Said they were padding on the watery ice where they normally were observed in the west end near the grassy bank.
Before that Dec.8th on another pond by the homeowner about a mile away.