An early March visit to Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge is a study in white. Only a few snow drifts remain but white ice covers some water, while open water reflects the white snow of the mountains. Among all this white, swans provide the purest white.
Trumpeter swans are the largest swans and the heaviest waterfowl in North America. Cindy and I drove out to Ruby Valley to see them, braving a rough Ruby Valley Road, damaged from a hard winter.
Jane Bardolf is the refuge wildlife biologist. She told us about 25 swans typically spend the winter here. The highest swan count during this winter was 150 in December. That crowd probably contained about 50 trumpeters mixed in with 100 of the smaller tundra swans.
Pete Schmidt is the refuge manager. He was nice enough to show Cindy and I the best spots to watch swans, where they swam or stood on ice among Canada geese and various ducks.
The stately trumpeter swans weigh over 25 pounds and are six feet long. Clearing the water for such a heavy bird may require a 100-yard running start. These swans are named for their calls, often compared in quality and tone to a French horn, a sort of low pitched, bugling “ko-hoh.”
Trumpeter Swans were almost extinct early in the 20th century. By the 1930s, fewer than 100 remained south of Canada. Among several problems was the reduction in numbers of beaver dams. Swans like to nest in their ponds, often on top of the beaver lodge. Swan numbers have recovered somewhat, although their population still causes concern. Today, approximately 46,000 trumpeter swans exist in North America.
The Trumpeter Swan Society sees the swan as an “indicator species” of healthy wetlands and waterways and symbols of hope showing that science, partnerships, and perseverance can bring a species back from the brink of extinction.
Ruby Marshes is an important wintering spot for swans. Unfortunately, only two or three pair of swans spend the summer here and nesting success is poor. Pete said they are working on the nesting problem and are considering a plan to bring in juveniles to summer here, in the hopes they would return to nest the next year.
Pete said the swans wintering at Ruby Marshes probably spend the summer at Montana’s Red Rock Lakes, an important breeding area. The Yellowstone National Park area has been important in swan recovery but the park’s experiences echoes those of Ruby Marsh. Yellowstone’s population peaked at 72 in 1961 but now only has two breeding pairs. Seven trumpeter swans were released on the Yellowstone River in 2014 and 2015 in hopes of producing more breeding pairs.