The commotion rises from the distant reeds early on a Saturday morning. It’s only a duck doing what ducks do before the water freezes.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with ducks, but we’re supposed to be looking for a swan — Blackfoot Valley trumpeter swan 9P8, to be exact.

What began as an e-mail request to a handful of avian enthusiasts turned into a search last week to locate a swan that dropped off radar, or more precisely, satellite.

The swan in question, dubbed 9P8, was a rare Blackfoot Valley trumpeter fitted with a new satellite-transmitter. Biologists in Ovando tracked the swan to the Lake Helena Wildlife Conservation Area, but lost contact with the bird when its collar stopped transmitting on Nov. 24.

Like NASA controllers tracking a lunar capsule passing behind the dark side of the moon, biologists hoping to learn more about the trumpeter’s winter migration habits held their breath and waited for a signal.

When it didn’t come, they began posing theories as to what happened. Had the collar fallen off? Had the swan died? Was the bird “chilling out” in the dwindling expanse of open water?

“We have a network of bird observers in the Helena area, and one of them went to the lake Saturday and did see that bird,” said a relieved Tom Hinz of the Montana Wetlands Legacy. “This bird was seen out there swimming around with a bunch of other swans.”

While it only took a week to solve the mystery surrounding 9P8’s temporary disappearance, the hunt demonstrated the effort biologists and volunteers are taking to see the trumpeter, nearly eradicated from Montana, make a combat in the Blackfoot Valley, where Lewis and Clark documented the animal’s presence more than 200 years ago.

Swan background

Experts believe breeding swans disappeared from Montana during the western expansion of European settlers. The birds were slow-moving and easy to shoot. Their skins were valuable, their meat considered a delicacy.

Between 1853 and 1877, according to one account, more than 17,600 trumpeter skins were sold by the Hudson Bay Company. Samuel Herne, who in 1774 founded the company’s first inland trading post, noted that one egg from one trumpeter provided “a sufficient meal for a moderate man, without a beard, or any other addition.”

It didn’t look good for the snowy white birds that only lay three to five eggs a season. But in 2003, an unlikely pair of trumpeters took a liking to the Blackfoot Valley wetlands. The pair established a nest, and while the female bird soon died in a collision with a power line, the landowners were able to recover the eggs.

From those eggs, three cygnets hatched at the Montana Waterfowl Foundation near Ronan. As the birds grew under the nurturing eye of surrogate parents, a team of University of Montana researchers set out to inventory wetlands throughout the Blackfoot Valley, hoping to find one that would offer the birds, along with their progeny, the greatest chance for survival.

Slow going

Near the pleasant meadows of Ovando, scientists released 10 cygnets in 2005. The celebrated release of the downy young birds marked the beginning of what biologists hoped would start the process of recovery.

But nearly four years after the first few swans were released, not a single breeding pair has returned to nest. Yet biologist Greg Neudecker with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes that will change this summer as the swans mature.

“They usually don’t breed until they’re 3 to 5 years old,” Neudecker said. “The oldest birds we’d have right now are in that 4- to 5-year range. I believe we turned the corner this year when we had 12 swans return to the Blackfoot.”

The dozen returning swans included one pair — a sign Neudecker sees as hopeful. If one pair returned together, he believes, others may follow next summer.

“I’m confident that next year we’ll see our first breeding year,” Neudecker said. “We’re a ways out, but we’re hoping to release another 30 birds next summer, and if we get 15 to return, I think we’ll start making some real progress.”

When it comes to swans, survival may be a game of odds. Of the 30 birds to be released next year in the Blackfoot, 10 are expected to die. Neudecker said 10 others may simply disappear, or fly to Canada with another flock.

It becomes a mathematical equation that even a novice birder can understand. From 30 swans, just 10 will likely make the trip back to the Blackfoot Valley the following spring.

“What we’re trying to figure out is where our birds are wintering at,” Neudecker said. “If they’re wintering in good locations, we can release other birds into those areas, and our established birds will teach them that migration back to the valley.”

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Technologically

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Right now, biologists don’t know much about the winter migration patterns of the Blackfoot Valley swans. What is known is that other swans, which start further north, fly as far south as the Snake River in Idaho.

The birds generally don’t travel any farther south than they have to. And once they establish a pattern — once they find a place they like — they tend to stick with it throughout their life.

So the question, as Neudecker poses it, remains one of geography. Where do the Blackfoot swans go when they take flight in the fall? Thanks to 9P8, they may pass through the Helena Valley wetlands, but then what?

That’s where the satellite transmitter comes in.

“We’ve been releasing trumpeters with collars now for four years,” Neudecker said. “This year, we also fitted some birds with satellite collars. Hopefully, we’ll be able to track the birds and see where they go, and that will help us out tremendously.”

While the study moves forward and biologists watch the swans’ winter flight, Hinz and others are looking to the Madison Valley as the next trumpeter project site.

The area stretching from Ennis south to Yellowstone is of particular interest. Hinz said the birds are known to use the area at certain times of the year.

Until next summer, however, Hinz will keep a close watch on the Blackfoot project, turning to birders across western Montana for occasional updates on their local, albeit temporary, avian residents.

“Our goal in the Blackfoot Valley is to establish a resident, wild-breeding population of seven nesting birds,” Hinz said. “They were seen there by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, so we know they were a native bird in the valley and we’re not creating something from nothing.”

Reporter Martin Kidston: 447-4086 or mkidston@helenair.com

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