Return of the Swan

Michael Forsberg
March 25, 2020

Film by Mariah Lundgren

While driving down a two-track road, deep in the Nebraska Sandhills, one may be so lucky to witness a heavenly white bird gliding across one of the many spring-fed lakes. The trumpeter swan is the largest waterfowl species in the world. Almost hunted to extinction, these birds have since been reintroduced to the Nebraska Sandhills and are thriving there today. But conservation work is never done, and challenges for these birds loom on the horizon.

In this conservation success story, you will meet the researchers who have worked tirelessly to protect trumpeter swans and their habitat, ranchers who live among these birds and make their lives in the Nebraska Sandhills, and a photographer whose love for this species emanates through his photographs.

Photo Essay by Michael Forsberg

Timelapse produced by Carlee Koehler Moates

The first time I saw a trumpeter swan in the wild, up close, I was so cold I couldn’t feel my face. It was early January along Blue Creek in the western Nebraska Sandhills, and most of the high plains lakes, rivers and streams were locked in ice after a long procession of zero-degree days, except for a wedge of open water right in front of me.

I was lying prone on a high bank facing into a gusting north wind, hiding in a tiny blind fashioned out of garden fence and meadow hay that my rancher friend Myron and I put in place on his land a month before. Maybe 100 yards upstream was a powerful spring pulsing up from the aquifer below with such force that even in the depths of winter, it remained ice-free.

Each night a group of swans would settle in to roost near the spring. In the mornings, they would wait until the north wind would pick up, making waves that would chip away at the ice creating an open channel that would grow in length throughout the day downstream. As the channel moved forward, the swans would be on its leading edge as if willing it forward, using their long necks to reach far below the surface to glean a smorgasbord of tubers and other aquatic plants in these icy waters. Other wintering waterfowl would join them in their wake: mallards and common mergansers, goldeneye and Canada geese. But in the immensity of this vast prairie landscape, it wasn’t until I could see these other birds side by side that I could really appreciate how big these swans were, and oh how heavenly white.

A trumpeter swan flaps its wings after a morning preening session. The scarlet red line along its bill is a distinguishing feature of trumpeter swans.

Trumpeter swans are the largest waterfowl in the world and the heaviest flying birds in North America. A big male can weigh over 30 pounds, and his wingspan can stretch to nearly eight feet. They once ranged widely from breeding grounds in the Upper Midwest and Canada as far north and west as interior Alaska; long-distance migrating populations would winter as far south as the Texas Gulf Coast.

A Sandhills lake captures mirrored reflections of clouds on a summer day at Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. Lakes like these with islands and healthy emergent vegetation are key swan breeding areas.

In vast Sandhills wetlands, trumpeter swans at their nests can be hard to see from ground level. An aerial view provides a different perspective.

In Nebraska, the vast expanse of mixed-grass prairie ranchlands and aquifer-fed wetlands that make up the 19,000-square mile Nebraska Sandhills were believed to be the southern end of their breeding range in the prairie states. This fact still holds true. But we nearly lost trumpeter swans a century ago due to wetland habitat loss and unregulated hunting. Just like in the rest of this young country, the menagerie of wildlife and wildlands that once existed before Euro American settlement was spiraling downward, and by the early 20th-century trumpeter swans, along with another large white bird, the whooping crane, were nearly extinct.

After successfully driving off an intruding swan flying low over their territory, this swan pair performs a series of wing quivers and trumpeting calls in what biologists call a “triumph display”. Note the tiny cygnets (juvenile trumpeter swans) in the nest.

But in the early 1900s, a couple of significant things happened that provided a glimmer of hope. A flock of 70 trumpeter swans was discovered in a remote area of Yellowstone. This population gave conservationists a seed source for trumpeter reintroduction efforts elsewhere in the Lower 48 states, and Congress passed a series of bold conservation laws to regulate hunting and protect migratory birds and their habitats, including the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Migratory Bird Conservation Act.

Ever so slowly through the first half of the 20th century, trumpeter swans’ dismally low numbers began to climb. By the end of the 20th century, they were reclaiming parts of their historic range, including Nebraska.

This map shows trumpeter swans’ breeding range and key wintering grounds in the 19,000 square-mile Nebraska Sandhills. In 2018, biologists counted over 1000 trumpeter swans in Nebraska, the vast majority of them in the Nebraska Sandhills. The dots on the map represent the movement of Swan R17 and Swan R02 over several years. Together, these two birds show the variety of habitats these birds use– nesting on Sandhills lakes over the summer and then wintering on open water in Sandhills rivers and streams. The research has shown that these birds frequently return to the same nesting and wintering grounds, year after year. Map by Mariah Lundgren

In the early 1960s, 57 trumpeter swans from Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Montana were reintroduced at LaCreek National Wildlife Refuge in southern South Dakota near the Nebraska border, the largest trumpeter reintroduction effort at the time. By 1964, the first successful trumpeter swan nest was documented in almost 100 years on a lake near Valentine, Nebraska. As this newly established High Plains flock took hold, trumpeter swans began to re-populate the Nebraska Sandhills. They had come home.

(Left) A large net and airboat are used to capture swans during summer molt. (Center) NGPC biologist Mark Vrtiska and rancher A.B. Cox hoist a trumpeter in the boat. (Right) Biologist Heather Johnson inspects a swan’s huge webbed feet.

But returning home does not mean the work is done. Trumpeter swans require large unfragmented landscapes with healthy waters in balance to thrive. They need to re-learn or create new migratory pathways to key wintering habitats when their nesting grounds ice up, and they need to be able to negotiate those aerial pathways through an increasing grid of obstacles from fence lines to powerlines.

They also need to negotiate a 21st-century world with foreign invaders like phragmites, a wetland-loving plant from Asia that quickly chokes out all other native wetland vegetation; the common carp from Europe that through their constant rooting up of lake bottoms in the Sandhills can destroy the entire habitat structure of lakes; and sport fish like northern pike and largemouth bass that might prove to be key predators on a swan’s chicks (or cygnets). Then there are the persistent challenges of lead poisoning by inadvertently ingesting fishing sinkers that have come off fishing lines, and being on the receiving end of policy changes that can weaken wetland protections.

During a Nebraska Game and Parks Commission led study of trumpeter swans from 2014-2018, 39 swans were captured and marked with satellite transmitters to determine their seasonal movements and habitat needs better.

Knowledge is power, and the more biologists learn about these birds and the intricacies of their lives, the better chances humans have to help swans manage for their survival. An important long-term research study led by Mark Vrtiska at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and supported by many conservation partners placed transmitters on 49 swans from 2014 – 2018 to understand where and how these birds move seasonally between breeding and wintering habitats within the Nebraska Sandhills.

Although results are still being analyzed, they found that swans are strongly philopatric (home-loving), having a high affinity to returning to nesting lakes and wintering grounds they have used in previous seasons and generations. This study has important implications when considering future energy development like wind farms and the placement of transmission lines in close proximity to key wintering sites.

After 15 minutes in hand, a researcher carries a swan back to the lake from which it was captured after being affixed with a transmitter.

In tandem with this project was a nesting study conducted by graduate student Heather Johnson from the University of Nebraska at Kearney, who studied nesting success at dozens of nests around the region during this same time frame. I worked with Heather to place high-quality time-lapse cameras near two nests to document change over time, and the results captured swans’ behaviors and visual data that had never been documented before in this fashion in Nebraska.

These time-lapse camera sequences focus on two trumpeter swan nests in the Nebraska Sandhills between 2016 – 2017.

The first nest (above) failed after the eggs were laid, flooded out by high waters from a series of heavy rains. Both swans worked hard to keep the nest above water but eventually could not keep up. Once the nest was lost and the eggs drowned, the swan pair lingered near the nest site an additional two days.

The second nest was more successful. This tile of images shows the diversity of weather swans encounters during nesting season. Utilizing a large muskrat hut as the nest platform, this pair hatched two cygnets, although one cygnet disappeared within the first week while the other cygnet likely made it to fledge.

Since my first encounter with trumpeter swans in the Sandhills long ago, I have been fortunate to see them in other places too – in the backcountry of Greater Yellowstone, in the urban wild of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in restored wetlands in a sea of cornfields along the Interstate in Iowa, and even in the wild heart of interior Alaska. However, my heart still goes back to those cold winter days on my friend’s ranch in western Nebraska when I first realized the beauty of these birds and began to understand what it was that we nearly lost.

Birdwood Creek snakes its way through the Nebraska Sandhills and eventually reaches the North Platte River. Certain stretches of Birdwood Creek are key wintering areas for trumpeter swans and other wintering waterfowl; its strong groundwater flow maintains open water even in the coldest weather.

A few years ago, I was back in the icebox, but this time in the eastern Sandhills, near the upper reaches of Calamus Reservoir. On the Calamus, groundwater flow from a small series of nameless seeps had converged to form a single channel, and it had carved open a knife-edge of open water where oxygen-starved baitfish had gathered in that open pocket. It was like being on safari in Africa, witnessing this great gathering of life at a waterhole in an otherwise parched plain. Bald eagles and crows, gulls and mallard ducks, and at least 30 trumpeter swans, all feeding on these shiny silver slabbed fish. It was pandemonium. I first watched it from a distance with binoculars, hidden by a thick grove of cottonwoods and willows, but eventually, I crept closer until I was hidden behind a particularly dense group of willows near the bank.

The golden morning light belies frigid cold temperatures as scores of trumpeter swans, bald eagles, crows, gulls, and mallard ducks crowd into a patch of ice-free water in the upper reaches of Calamus Reservoir to feed on schools of shad and other oxygen-starved fish rising to the surface.

(Left) Juvenile swans (denoted by their gray feathering) feed on shad in a patch of open water at Calamus Reservoir. While swans are mostly vegetarian, they are opportunistic and will sometimes eat small fish. (Right) In late winter, four adults and a juvenile swan bleeding from its breast fly low over the Calamus River. Trumpeter swans are large, heavy birds that do not maneuver well in flight and require plenty of room to take off and gain elevation. Power lines and fence lines near key wintering areas can pose significant challenges for swans. It is not certain what caused the injury to this particular bird, but it did not survive the night.

Trumpeters are not territorial in winter, but skirmishes often erupt on wintering sites in foraging areas where resources and space is limited.

It is hard to explain the pulse of life and light in that bright moment along this thin finger of open water in the fold of those magnificent heaving hills. Still, I knew then what I was witnessing in front of me was special — a remnant of the wild past and what once was, a celebration of what still is today, and a hope for what can be in generations to come.

On a balmy day in late March, trumpeter swan pairs sit on the ice at Lake McConaughy, waiting for ice out. As soon as the Sandhill lakes become ice-free, these pairs will head north to their respective nesting territories intent on raising the next generation.


PBT team photo. Summer 2023

About PBT

We are a group of storytellers using timelapse photography and multimedia storytelling to explore watersheds. PBT has been in motion since 2011.

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