No Progress on Ice-out, But No Need to Panic

As many of you know, I am a worry-wart. Normally I get so stressed-out about my kids, my teaching, my research, my health — and many other matters that are going well — that I hardly have time to obsess about loons in the study area. But Linda Grenzer’s bleak photo of conditions on her lake today gave me a jolt. Could the late ice-out that we are facing in 2018 delay the season so much that it damages the breeding prospects of our loon population?

One might think that the later the ice comes off of the lakes, the later the loons nest, and the less time parents have to fatten up their chicks and prepare them for their first southward migration. Thus, a late ice-out might well lead to reduced breeding success for the population. Although there are many “if”s in this string of logic (and a preliminary analysis did not bear out the pattern), I felt concern  gnaw at me.

So I did what scientists often do to stave off despair: I looked at the data. First, I looked to see if loons nest later when the ice goes out later, which almost has to

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be true. It is true, but there is a lot of noise in the data. That is, loons are constrained to nest somewhat later in years when the ice goes out later, but the picture is not simple. The reason for the noise becomes clear when you look at the lag time between when loons settle on their territories and when they hatch their

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young. There is a very strong pattern here. When the ice goes out early (left side of graph), loons dawdle and wait weeks before nesting. But when the ice goes out late, as it will this year, pairs get down to business quickly, nesting within a week or so of territory return. So loon pairs are somehow able to catch up in years of late ice-out so that their breeding schedule does not differ greatly from other years. (Notice also that the orange line in the top graph is flatter than the blue line.)

What accounts for this pleasing pattern? We can make a pretty good guess based on findings in other migrant birds. Spring migration is an energetically costly process. In an early year, the ice is gone so quickly that loons settle on their lakes as soon as they return from the wintering grounds. In such cases, their fat levels are very low from migration when they first occupy their territories, and it takes a good deal of foraging before they return to good condition. In a late year, loons cannot settle on their territories right away but must wait on nearby rivers that have open water. There, they are able to forage and restore their bodies to good condition. As a result, loons hit their territories in prime body condition and fully recovered from the migratory flight in years of late ice-out. Thus, they can get down to breeding quickly.

Although I was heartened by the data I saw above, I had a look at the numbers that most directly addressed my concern about late ice-out and population breeding success. There is a no statistical tendency for the population to produce more loon chicks in years of early ice-out, despite the many years of data we have to look for such a pattern. Indeed, some of our best years for loon breeding (2013, for example) have occurred when the ice goes out late. So those many of you shivering in northern Wisconsin and other frigid regions can relax about one thing; the loons are no worse off in years when spring comes late than when it arrives early.