Early spring research takes a special kind of mettle. With winter merely loosening its grasp on the North, but not letting go entirely, many boat landings remain iced in — like the one Linda found at Hilts Lake today. Meanwhile, inconvenient portions of each lake become ice-free, and returning loons hang out there. In the photo above, for example, Linda is trapped at the public landing, far from an ice-free strip of lake on the northwest side. So the birds are, for the next day or so, inaccessible. Sometimes, too, entry roads are blocked or impassable, as Linda found yesterday on O’Day Lake, where one of our oldest females (marked in 1996) breeds. We will have to come back to these lakes when conditions are more favorable for our work.
Early-season census, which involves visiting lake after lake to verify IDs of all loons found, can be a frustrating business. Not only are conditions unpleasant, loons move around. As part of their ceaseless quest to stay a step ahead of raccoons, loon pairs that lost eggs in one year will check out adjacent lakes in early spring of the next year to search for better nesting sites. Thus, one can fight one’s way to a boat landing and dodge ice slabs to reach open water, only to find that the breeding pair is off scouting a nearby but unknown lake.
The upside of observations of loons in April and May is the excitement of seeing which of our marked study animals have returned. As many of my posts have made clear, we get to know and love our loons, especially the tame ones that permit us to approach to within a few meters and identify them from their bands easily. So each year I read with great anticipation the list of returning breeders that Linda, Nelson, and other scouts have found. These birds — and this does not feel like an exaggeration — are my friends.
This year I get to help with scouting. While normally I would be bogged down with teaching until the middle of May, my sabbatical this spring allows me to join Linda in the challenging task of identifying our returning breeders. Within a week, I will be zipping around from lake to lake, hoping at each stop that both pair members will be right off the boat landing, roll-preening to show off their leg bands. A few weeks later, Elaina, who worked with us last year, will join us as well. We are short-handed in 2019 and will not have a banner year for data collection, but the three of us will do what we can to hold down the fort.