In his routine visit to Two Sisters Lake to check on the status of an incubating pair, Chris was alarmed to find out that the male had a hook lodged in his cheek and fishing line protruding from his bill. This male — captured and marked in 2010 as a breeder on Brown Lake before being evicted two years later — had been a “floater” for the past three years before replacing the absent Two Sisters male this spring. I was thrilled to see this tame bird get his life back together.
When Chris reported the hook in this male’s bill, I wondered if this bird was just snakebit. The entanglement could not have occurred at a worse time. The male and his mate were on the brink of completing four weeks of incubation and hatching of two chicks, which require great care and protection at this stage. Indeed, between yesterday morning and afternoon, the male had finished incubating the second egg and left the nest for good with two head-sized chicks alternately hiding under his wing and riding on his back. Attentive as he was, the hooked male was ill-equipped to defend his brood. As we have learned recently, male loons are especially vital to the defense of a pair’s young chicks, because the male-only yodel discourages landing by intruders (which, on occasion, kill young chicks) and because males are active defenders of chicks towards intruders that approach them in the water. With the hook lodged in his mouth, the male was unable to open his bill, and his protective vocalizations yesterday were so muffled and distorted as to be ineffective.
Upon receiving the report of the hooked male yesterday, we agonized over the decision of how to proceed. Adults with small chicks are the easiest to capture, so we were not worried about catching the male. However, one must take great care when young chicks are present, as they are tiny and are always on, next to, or underneath the wings of the adults. When one is netting the 10 to 12 pound parent and hauling it into the boat, it is conceivable that an unseen chick might be crushed beneath it. Would it be wise to wait for a few days or a week, until the chicks were larger and stronger, before attempting capture? In the end, we decided that the male was impacted enough that we were endangering his life and those of the chicks if we did not act immediately to help him. So last night, Joel, Eric and Seth set out on Two Sisters to try to: 1) gently separate the tiny chicks from the male, and 2) catch the male so that the hook could be safely removed by Mark Naniot of Wild Instincts, who was standing by on shore.
As you can see from Seth’s photo, we caught the male, and Mark expertly removed the hook from his cheek. The chicks were unharmed in the process. The male seemed in good shape, considering his close encounter with an angler’s line. (We suppose that he became hooked only a day or so before we caught him.) Still, we shall be checking today to see that the family is back to normal. While there are many dangers facing loons in the first few weeks after hatching, the team of rehabbers and loon researchers has given them a chance to confront these dangers without human impacts layered on top!