Looking Hard for the Positive

We are feeling snakebit this year on the Loon Project. Late July in most years is a time of celebration — a time when we winnow the list of covered lakes to those with one or two chicks and stop visiting those that have failed to produce young. In most years, this narrowing process gives the entire team an emotional boost. Instead of surveying pairs that have lost two nesting attempts, have had a pair member evicted, or — worst of all — are sitting for the seventh week on a clutch of eggs that we know to be infertile, we focus on the positive.

Dropping failed pairs from our circuits gives us a pleasantly warped view of loon breeding success.  We smile while watching chicks ride on parents’ backs. We chuckle at the determined efforts of youngsters to dive like their parents, and at parents’ concerned peering underwater as they monitor those efforts. And we marvel at the rapid and well-choreographed diving responses of entire families to flying intruders, which no doubt succeed at hiding chicks from intruders and thus protect the territorial ownership of both pair members.

This year has been different. Owing to a late ice-out, a lengthy period of black fly abundance — and perhaps other factors we have not yet detected — 2019 has been a dismal year for loon breeding in northern Wisconsin. When I asked Elaina a few days ago to help assign each field observer to a circuit of lakes, this fact became undeniable. She scoffed. “We have just been to these lakes!”, she replied. She was right. Whereas an observer would normally visit each lake with chicks every three to four days, we are now visiting chick lakes about every other day. The reason is simple; only about a quarter of our lakes have produced young in 2019; last year, it was over half. I have begun to view the few pairs with chicks as the chosen ones.

The loon team is searching for a silver lining, but it is difficult. The list of failed lakes is a “Who’s Who” of traditional chick-producers. Blue Lake yielded only one chick in 2019 despite the efforts of two highly successful pairs. East and West Horsehead both failed to raise young. Neither pair on Two Sisters Lake reared a chick; one has to go back to 2010 to see the last time that happened. And on and on.

Elaina, back for her second year on the study, feels the blow harder than most. Last night, as we drove between our first and second capture lakes of the year, she and Tarryn grasped at a silver lining. “At least we will not have to carry the motorboat in at Buck and Greenbass”, they agreed. (The carry-in for canoes at both lakes is lengthy; to carry in a motorboat for capture, as we do most years, looks like masochism.)

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It is not all gallows humor and rueful comments this year. Linda Grenzer’s two striking photos show one of the few bright spots. In an apparent effort to compensate for the poor productivity of other lakes, the Bass Lake pair hatched not two, but three chicks! Two chicks is already a crowd for loon parents; Gabby Jukkala’s paper showed that male loons yodel three times as often while defending two-chick broods than with singleton chicks. Imagine the stress faced by the Bass Lake parents! But since Tarryn texted me excitedly almost two weeks ago to announce the spectacle, the parents have tended their over-sized family assiduously. Despite obvious size disparities between alpha, beta, and gamma chicks, all three are staying together and receiving regular feedings. Linda’s hilarious “loon pyramid” photo suggests that there are even brief moments of reluctant alloparenting.

I will be honest; I am on pins and needles. Bass Lake is a 40-acre lake. Only once in eighteen years of hatches — way back in 1995 — has the Bass Lake pair even fledged two chicks. Never has any pair in our study area raised three chicks to fledging age. (Washburn Lake did hatch three in 1997; they fledged only one.) So my scientist’s sense tells me that the gamma chick is doomed, and the beta chick’s survival is highly uncertain. But I am trying to stay upbeat about the family of five on Bass. I need something to cling to this year.