To most people, Memorial Day weekend is both a sacred and joyous occasion. It is a time to remember those who have given their lives for our country. And it is a holiday that lets us gather around the barbecue with friends or enjoy an extra day of rest followed by a short work week. In the northwoods of Wisconsin, Memorial Day often brings a hint of summer’s warmth at a time when we are not quite free of the clutches of winter. Memorial Day convinces us that summer will return to the north.
Since 1993, when I first starting studying loons in northern Wisconsin, I have dreaded Memorial Day. On this holiday weekend, throngs of anglers bolt from their southerly homes for the northwoods to throw a hook in the water. Meanwhile, loon pairs that have managed to fight off black flies, eagles, and raccoons are well into the four-week incubation period. Memorial Day is the time when hopeful loon parents and hopeful human anglers collide.
I used to gird myself for the disturbance to nesting loons that humans caused each Memorial Day weekend. Fishermen and boaters commonly disregard or do not see loon nests and venture close to them, driving loons off of nests for a time. But such incursions now seem innocuous. They seldom cause great problems for loons, who sometimes complain but dutifully jump back on their nests after boats have moved off.
Now that we have better connections to the local community, I see that the substantial danger posed by humans to loons on big fishing weekends is not from flushing off of nests but from fishhooks and monofilament line. On Memorial Day weekend, the loon pictured in Linda’s photo, a female that reared a chick on Nokomis Lake in 2010, was hooked in or near its throat while it foraged on Nokomis. As ugly as it is to look at the silver hook buried in its throat and the local swelling that resulted, the Nokomis female might recover. She appears to be hooked externally, and Linda reports that she dives strongly.
A second female fell prey to an angler’s lure this Memorial Day. This bird, the mother of many recent chicks on East Horsehead Lake, apparently swallowed a lure or bait used by a fisherman. Initially Linda found that this female was severely impacted, often trying to jump onto the shoreline, as loons do when seriously injured. Nelson and I raced up to East Horsehead to help Linda and her husband, Kevin, try and capture this bird and transport her to a wildlife rehabber for treatment. But our efforts were in vain. The bird had bounced back and begun to dive normally, despite the fishing line protruding from its bill. Having ingested a lure, this bird’s long-term prospects are rather dim. She will certainly die if she swallowed a lead sinker.
These two cases illustrate a vexing paradox often faced by those of us trying to protect wildlife: animals commonly become injured in a way likely to kill them eventually but not so catastrophically that immediate capture is possible. So we must wait and monitor them until creeping hunger or infection reduces their mobility sufficiently for us to grab them and see to their injuries. These are most unpleasant and heart-wrenching vigils. Moreover, these occasions often end badly, if the animal becomes compromised beyond the point of recovery before it can be captured and treated. Still, knowing that a grave injury of this kind has occurred gives us a chance.
An encounter with fishing tackle ended quite badly for the East Horsehead male last year. Although it was not reported to us until a few days ago, last year’s East Horsehead male — the long-time mate of the female who swallowed a lure a week ago — became hopelessly ensnarled in monofilament line last August. Based on our records, we surmise that he succumbed to this entanglement sometime after August 10th, as we observed the female alone caring for the chicks on our two visits after that date. (Since the chicks were 11 weeks old by late August, they likely survived to migrate south. That, at least, is a relief!)
We were disappointed to hear only now about the unpleasant entanglement and death of the East Horsehead male. Unlike the two females, this male was probably immediately compromised enough by the fishing line that we could have captured him and cut him loose in good condition and with no harm to his survival prospects. Indeed, we were able to save a female on Perch Lake from a similar predicament in 2010. Since the East Horsehead male’s plight was never communicated to us, he had no chance.
So, now, a plea. Please let folks know that angling casualties happen. We are anglers ourselves and understand this. But anglers who cut the line and flee the scene after accidentally hooking a loon — or observe a loon in distress and fail to report it — are turning a dangerous situation into a catastrophic one. As so often occurs, it is the cover-up, not the crime, that causes real damage. (I am happy to take reports of loons in distress at firstname.lastname@example.org.) Let’s try and have summer holidays in the northwoods bring to mind the events they were meant to commemorate, not the toll they exact on loons.