After a Hooking and a Battle, Loons Look Forward

If you have been following the goings-on at East and West Horsehead lakes, you know that the picture was bleak a few weeks ago. After Iceberg, the female on East Horsehead, was hooked on a fishing line on Memorial Day weekend, she ceased interacting with her mate, YellowBlue, and seemed headed for a rapid, unpleasant demise. Reacting to the loss of a viable mate, YellowBlue searched nearby territories for a new mate, and he gained one after evicting CopperGreen, the male on neighboring West Horsehead Lake. Meanwhile, CopperGreen, after losing his territory, appeared a shadow of his former self, and was reduced to skulking about on the fringe of his former territory to avoid raising the ire of YellowBlue. His mate, WhiteYellow, was left with eggs to incubate and no mate able to help her do so. Thus, the hooking not only threatened the life of an adult loon, it also also compromised the breeding effort of the neighboring pair.

What a difference a few days makes! After a final skirmish with YellowBlue at dusk on the 6th of June, CopperGreen flew off his territory for good to lick his wounds, giving up the fight for ownership of West Horsehead. Fortunately for him, many lakes in the north support no territorial loon pair and yet are full of fish. These lakes are natural soft landing spots for loons displaced from their breeding lakes. One such lake is Birch, where we spotted CopperGreen five days later. But he did not give up his territorial aspirations and settle for a life of ease. In fact, Al Schwoegler reports that CopperGreen has just settled with afflicted female Iceberg on East Horsehead, “across the street” from his former territory. While still bothered by the small jig embedded in her throat (!), Iceberg’s behavior is otherwise normal, and she now interacts extensively with her new mate. So it is possible that CopperGreen has bounced back from his eviction to claim a good territory with a recovering mate.

Meanwhile, back on West Horsehead, things got complicated for WhiteYellow, CopperGreen’s former mate. Having enjoyed an uninterrupted 23-year run as female owner of the West Horsehead territory, during which she produced a whopping 19 fledged chicks, WhiteYellow is a spectacularly productive individual. We cannot impugn her breeding prowess. But in the aftermath of her mate’s eviction, she elected to continue incubating the eggs they had produced. You cannot blame her for trying to hatch these eggs; according to our records, they were within a few days of hatching when her mate met his match. Her decision, however, was fateful. In effect, WhiteYellow was gambling that: 1) she could hatch the chicks as sole incubator and despite spotty incubation owing to black fly infestation, and 2) her new mate would accept and raise the chicks sired by his predecessor.

WhiteYellow has faced such difficult decisions before. Twelve years ago her mate was booted off of the territory late in incubation, yet the evicting male helped her complete incubation of the eggs and rear the chicks. Four years ago, WhiteYellow again completed incubation during a period of male territorial rancor, only to see an evicting male kill the newly-hatched chick. So she knows the ups and downs of continued breeding during territorial instability.

This time, I think, WhiteYellow has erred. Though she continues to incubate sporadically, the eggs are a now a full week overdue for hatching. And WhiteYellow’s hopeful incubation has prevented her from getting on with her life  — bonding reproductively with the evicting male, YellowBlue, so that the two of them might produce a new clutch of eggs and rear some late-hatching chicks.

Apart from the West Horsehead/East Horsehead saga, the news from our study area is mixed. Seventeen of 120 pairs survived the black fly onslaught and have hatched chicks from their first nesting attempt. Another 54 pairs are incubating eggs — nearly all from renesting attempts after abandoned first attempts. A few more pairs will yet try to nest. There is a chance that the newly-formed West and East Horsehead pairs could be among this last group. For the time being, though, they are just hoping for a return to normalcy.