Status: Uncommon regular spring and fall migrant statewide. Locally uncommon regular summer resident at Sandhills lakes, rare elsewhere. Locally common regular winter visitor statewide.
Documentation: Specimen: HMM 573, circa 15 Mar 1898 Overton, Dawson Co.
Taxonomy: No subspecies recognized.
Changes since 2000: Numbers of this species in North America have increased exponentially in recent decades (Baldassarre 2014). The estimated number of resident Trumpeter Swans in Nebraska has increased from 200 individuals in 2000 to 311 individuals in 2015 (Groves 2017), with more recent surveys showing Nebraska may have more than 700 resident Trumpeter Swans (Mark P. Vrtiska, personal communication). Increases in Iowa and Minnesota have been more impressive, from an estimated 742 individuals in 2000 up to an estimated 17,224 individuals in 2015 (Groves 2017). As a result of local and regional increases, migrants, and more recently wintering birds, have become locally common in Nebraska, especially since the early 2000s. The number of Trumpeter Swans counted during mid-winter waterfowl surveys was less than 200 prior to 2000 but counts have exceeded 700 in recent years (Johnson et al 2017). The increasing numbers of wintering birds in eastern Nebraska corresponds with increases in Minnesota and Iowa and some of these Nebraska sightings are of birds with red neck collars from the Iowa re-introduction program and orange patagial tags from the Minnesota program. Since 2014, though, red neck collars with satellite transmitters have also been placed on 24 Trumpeter Swans in the Nebraska Sandhills (Mark P. Vrtiska, personal communication).
Spring: Migration is associated with weather conditions, but may begin as early as mid-Feb and last through mid-Apr, peaking in Mar. Wintering birds at Carter Lake, Omaha departed 10 Mar 2014 and 13 Mar 2015, but were absent by 18 Feb in 2016 and 11 Feb in 2017. First arrivals in the Sandhills in 2020 were the 10 at Smith Lake WMA, Sheridan Co 21 Mar. Immatures may lag behind adults; one was in Polk Co 23 Apr 2019, and, in 2020, three were in northern Knox Co 10 May and juvenile was still there 31 May, two were at Wood Duck WMA, Stanton Co 26-29 Apr, and one was at Hansen WPA, Clay Co 26 Apr.
Until the 1980s, most Nebraska Trumpeter Swans were summer residents in the Sandhills and wintered at LaCreek NWR, South Dakota (Baldassarre 2014). By the 1980s, however, Trumpeter Swans were observed wintering locally in Nebraska, likely in response to increasing numbers and limited open water at LaCreek NWR. Currently, migration includes short distance movements of resident birds of the High Plains flock and longer distance movements of birds of the Interior Population (see Comments). However, a Trumpeter Swan outfitted with a satellite transmitter in the Nebraska Sandhills recently wintered along the Kansas-Oklahoma border southeast of Dodge City, Kansas (Mark P. Vrtiska, personal communication).
- High Counts: 33 at Swan Lake, Arthur Co 30 Mar 2017, and 23 at Fontenelle Forest, Sarpy Co 1 Apr 2020.
Summer: Trumpeter Swans apparently bred historically on Sandhills lakes of Nebraska and South Dakota in small numbers (Ducey 1988, Ducey 1999a) but were extirpated before the end of the 19th century. In 1960-63, cygnets from Red Rock Lakes NWR, Montana, were introduced to Lacreek NWR in South Dakota, and by 2008 this population, surveyed on its LaCreek NWR wintering grounds, totaled 639; some 90% of this population now summers in the Nebraska Sandhills (Vrtiska and Comeau 2009).
Away from the Sandhills, breeding is rare, but appears to be slowly increasing; breeding was noted in 2009-2010 on a small pond near Ravenna in Buffalo Co; a pair of adults with two flightless young was photographed 29 Jul 2009; the family group remained at the site through at least 20 Oct, and presumably the same pair bred there successfully again in 2010. Since then, breeding has been successful in six of eight years; two adults with two cygnets were present 26 Jun 2017 and two adults first reported 4 May 2018 had two very young cygnets 17 Jun. In 2019, however, only one adult was present, and in 2020 two were there 17 Mar but only one on 27 Apr and 30 May.
Additional reports of breeding or likely breeding in areas peripheral to the Sandhills are recent. An un-banded pair on a small playa near Colon, Saunders Co 16 Apr 2011 was still present and seen mating through 11 May, and two adults were at a pond in western Douglas Co 25 Jun-15 Aug 2013, but no direct evidence of breeding was noted at either location. A pair on Overton Lake, Holt Co 15 Apr 2015 was “apparently nesting”; and a pair along the Elkhorn River in Antelope Co 9 Apr 2015 apparently was there in 2014 also and may have been the same pair as that nesting on Beaver Creek in extreme northwest Boone Co.
Summer reports of unbanded birds away from breeding areas include one at Hansen WPA, Clay Co 16 Jun 1999 (Jorgensen 2012), an adult at North Platte SL, Lincoln Co 20 Jun 2006, and three birds on the lower Platte River near Venice, Douglas Co 6 Jun 2009. A flight-capable single near Gretna, Sarpy Co 4 Aug 2013 had been there about four years; two were at the site in 2011. One at Prairie Queen RA, Sarpy Co May-Jul 2017 may have been the same bird observed near Gretna.
- Breeding phenology:
Territorial Pairs: 7 Feb 2006.
Eggs/Incubation: 23 Mar-3 Jun.
Nestlings: 2 Jun.
Dependent Fledglings: 25 May-8 Sep.
Fall: Oct 5, 7, 8 (away from breeding range) <<<>>> winter
Migration is generally associated with weather conditions and usually does not begin until mid-Nov, although there are earlier dates south of the Sandhills breeding range, as indicated above.
- High counts: 91 at Mud Lake, Cherry Co 30 Nov 1998 (Ducey 1999b), 54 in Douglas Co 30 Nov 2018, 50 in Arthur Co 25 Nov 2012, and 38 at Valentine NWR, Cherry Co 18 Nov 2018.
Traditional wintering sites include Blue Creek in Garden Co, the Snake River in Cherry Co, portions of the Loup River system, and the North Platte River at Lake Ogallala, Keith Co (Rosche 1994; Ducey 1999b, Vrtiska and Comeau 2009). However, as numbers have increased rapidly in the 2000s, flocks are being reported in the east at locations where open water is reliably available. Regular wintering locations include Carter Lake, Omaha, sand and gravel mine lakes near Ashland, Saunders Co, and DeSoto NWR, Washington Co. During winter 2016-2017, first arrivals at Carter Lake were 11 on 22 Dec, peak count was 103 on 21 Jan, and numbers declined rapidly from mid-Feb, with 74 on 5 Feb but only 14, the last report, on 12 Feb.
- High counts: 144 at DeSoto NWR 15 Dec 2019, 135 there 30 Dec 2016, 133 at Long Lake, Lincoln Co 1 Jan 2020, 130 along the Snake River in Cherry Co from Merritt Reservoir to near Nenzel in winter (Ducey 1989), 114 at Calamus Reservoir, Loup Co 27 Dec 2016, and, in the east, 103 at Carter Lake, Omaha 21 Jan 2017.
Comments: Breeding populations that are currently geographically isolated, as a result or artifact of reintroduction efforts, have been given unique names. Resident birds that breed and winter in Nebraska are considered part of the High Plains population or flock (Groves 2017). Individuals from the Interior Population or flock, which breed as close as Iowa and Minnesota (Groves 2017), occur in Nebraska during winter, especially in the east. Trumpeter Swans are occasionally kept in captivity; two have been kept at Cody Park, North Platte, Lincoln Co for several years and are sometimes erroneously reported as wild birds.
Abbreviations used in text
HMM: Hastings Municipal Museum
NWR: National Wildlife Refuge
RA: Recreation Area
SL: Sewage Lagoons
WPA: Waterfowl Production Area (Federal)
Mark P. Vrtiska provided numerous helpful comments that improved this species account.
Baldassarre, G. 2014. Ducks, geese, and swans of North America. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.
Ducey, J.E. 1988. Nebraska birds, breeding status and distribution. Simmons-Boardman Books, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.
Ducey, J.E. 1989. Birds of the Niobrara River valley, Nebraska. Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences 27: 37-60.
Ducey, J.E. 1999a. History and Status of the Trumpeter Swan in the Nebraska Sand Hills. North American Swans 28: 31-39.
Ducey, J.E. 1999b. Trumpeter Swans in Nebraska Sandhills. Trumpetings 9: 2.
Groves, D.J. 2017. The 2015 North American Trumpeter Swan Survey. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Division of Migratory Bird Management, Juneau, Alaska, USA.
Johnson, H.M., L. Reichart, and M.P. Vrtiska. 2017. Trumpeter Swans in the Nebraska Sandhills – Initial Insights. Power point presentation on the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture website.
Jorgensen, J.G. 2012. Birds of the Rainwater Basin, Nebraska. Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.
Rosche, R.C. 1994. Birds of the Lake McConaughy area and the North Platte River valley, Nebraska. Published by the author, Chadron, Nebraska, USA.
Vrtiska, M.P., and S. Comeau. 2009. Trumpeter Swan survey of the High Plains flock, Interior Population winter 2008. Unpublished report, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Lincoln, Nebraska, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Lacreek NWR, Martin, South Dakota, USA.
Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen. 2020. Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator), Version 1.0. In Birds of Nebraska — Online. www.BirdsofNebraska.org
Birds of Nebraska – Online