Early Season Jitters

When you live on a lake with loons, you grow attached to them. You feel a sense of ownership and responsibility. You share in their failures and successes. If you are a real loon aficionado, your view of the entire summer can depend upon how your loons fare. When they are sitting on eggs, you are nervous and protective. When they hatch a chick or two, you are excited and hopeful. When the chicks mature and begin to fly, you look back at a job well done. And, of course, if they should lose a nest or — worse still — a chick, you are bitterly disappointed.

Those of us who visit 100+ study lakes live in a different world. Like lake-dwellers, we mourn lost nests and chicks — and we too are devastated by adult loons that are injured or killed during the summer, especially those we have come to know well over a decade or more. But we do not have all of our hopes riding on a single lake. Our disappointment at the failure or loss of loons on one lake is tempered by the success of a different breeding pair on the next lake we visit. Even during a truly dreadful year for breeding — like 2019 or 2011 — there are always a few breeding pairs that beat the odds to produce young on lakes where we thought they never would.  

Despite being buffered somewhat from mood swings by our tendency to flit about from lake to lake, those of us who cover the study area do form attachments to certain loons. In fact, I was almost as alarmed as Linda when she told me last week that the first loon to return to her still mostly iced-up lake was not “Clune” — her beloved, 22-year-old banded male — but instead the banded male from neighboring Deer Lake. Things went from bad to worse the following day when “Honey”, the resident female, returned and quickly paired up with the interloper (as seen in Linda’s photo). 

I have known Clune since he was a chick. He and his sibling and parents were almost comically tame back on July 22, 1998, when I visited them on Manson Lake. As always, I tried to keep my distance from the family on that day, while collecting behavioral data. Once, though, the foraging parents happened to surface on one side of my canoe, while the chicks surfaced on the other and only a few meters away. While I paddled as quickly as I could to escape that unfortunate situation, neither parents nor chicks called out nor showed the slightest degree of alarm. As an adult, Clune has been every bit as tolerant of humans as he was when young. So it is easy to understand how he has long been the favorite loon of the Loon Project team.

Clune made us sweat for two more days before returning, on April 10th, to reclaim his territory and drive off the male from Deer Lake. Now, it seems, things have returned to normal.

What of the Deer Lake male, you ask? His effort to “trade up” by seizing Clune’s highly productive territory has been thwarted. After five consecutive years of breeding frustration on Deer — and at least nine consecutive nesting failures — he is in an unenviable position. Will he be desperate enough in late 2020, if his luck on Deer has not turned by then, to have another go at Clune’s territory?