The Ups and Downs of Scouting

I have been out on the lakes for the past fifteen days. This time of year, we race around to all of our study lakes from the previous year – and a few more where we suspect new pairs might have settled – and see who is on territory. We do not dawdle; our task is to identify the pair present on each territory and move on to the next. It is an exciting but frantic annual ritual. While we usually observe the breeding pair on each territory for an hour, a minute will suffice during scouting, because we are merely confirming the identity of breeders, then moving to the next lake. Therefore, on a really good day – if the loons are easy to find and show us their bands – a scout might hit ten lakes.

I had the kind of scouting visit we dream of on Lake Seventeen on Sunday. Seventeen has beautiful clear water, but it is large (175 acres) and has multiple bays and convolutions. One can be certain that a visit there will require putting in the canoe and searching for twenty minutes or more for the birds. Three days ago I stopped by a home at the northern tip that is our access point, glanced at the lake as I habitually do, and was delighted to see the pair foraging thirty meters offshore. I grabbed my binoculars and ran to the water’s edge. Five minutes later I confirmed that the male was “Yellow/Silver, Green/Copper” and the female “Silver/Red, Pink/Red”. The loons were so close to my position that I even observed several small bluegill scatter and flee to within inches of shore as the female pursued them. For a moment I wondered what life must be like for a small fish that ventures occasionally into open water, where predators lurk. But my reflection was cut short; I had six more lakes to hit that day.

Few scouting visits go as my recent one to Seventeen did. Yesterday, in fact, I had one of those days when I think that loons might have gone extinct suddenly. The pair on Tomahawk-Little Carr territory was cooperative: I got their bands quickly and saw them building a nest in their usual spot. But that was the end of my good fortune. I was skunked on Bullhead Lake, where the pair was missing (for the third visit this spring), and the usual nesting location showed no signs of usage. Minocqua-North, an area where the Bullhead pair has foraged in previous years, was also vacant, though I found two patches with marshy hummocks that would make excellent nesting spots. In short, the banded male and female of Bullhead, consistent breeders and chick-producers since 2010, are at large. The same is true for Minocqua-South, where a banded pair first nested on an island in 2018. Johnson Lake, where the banded male was caught on a fishing line­­­­ last May, was empty as well. My next lake, Mercer, is one we dread, because both pair members are extremely skittish. A typical datasheet from Mercer following an hour-long visit might list the leg band colors of the male and female, respectively, as “Red or Orange?,light band?” and “banded?”. It is that bad. After an hour and 53 minutes of exhaustive searching yesterday, though, I would have been thrilled just to see a loon. As on the three previous lakes, I did not find the pair.

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Yesterday’s hours of fruitless scouting ended the first round lake visits with a whimper. All other days have gone far better, however. Linda’s great work at the southern boundary and my observations in the central and northern parts of the study area have clarified the picture of who is back and who is not. Though I was stung by the disappearance of many banded and well-established pairs — or possibly my failure to find them – I also can look back and smile at the return of the venerable female from Upper Kaubashine. Banded first with her chicks in Vilas County in 1993, she has been a most successful and itinerant breeder, having produced chicks with at least four different mates on four territories. She is at least 31 years old and probably older. So let’s lift a glass to this resilient bird (on left in photo with her larger mate). With luck, she will dodge the blackflies, raccoons, eagles, and fishing lures, and add two more offspring to her lifelong tally.