Beating the Odds

Identifying a loon from its colored leg bands is an incremental process. Once you spot a loon on a lake and approach the bird, you must develop a seat-of-the-pants strategy for recording its bands. The ideal situation is when you observe a preening loon, paddle slowly over to it, and simply wait for the bird to swing its legs up out of the water while distributing preen oil all over its feathers. One generally has at least five minutes to piece together the complete combination of four leg bands of preening birds from a quick view here or there. I talk to myself while getting bands, in hopes that I will remember what I have seen. “Yellow on top, right leg…wait….yellow over mint on right!” If the loon is not preening but foraging, identifications can take hours, and you must hope that, as you remain as close to the forager as possible, it happens to surface right next to your canoe and in good light when you happen to be looking its direction. In such cases, piecing together the bird’s band combination can be an arduous process, because one gets very quick views of bands underwater or for an instant just as the bird plunges beneath the water.

Despite diligent efforts, we often end up with only “partials” on loons’ bands during our hourlong visits to study lakes. However, since most of the loons we see are territorial birds on the lakes where we color-banded them, partials are often good enough to tell us the identity of the bird. Then again, sometimes — especially early in the year — we get surprised by a loon that was not banded on the lake where it is spotted.

Imagine what Linda must have experienced on Halfmoon Lake yesterday. After spotting a lone bird, Linda was expecting that it would be one of the two banded pair members from Halfmoon. She was no doubt pleased to see that the loner was preening, which gave her hope that she could nail its bands before it resumed foraging. Was this bird going to turn out to be “Grandma”, the female originally banded fourteen years ago on Muskellunge Lake, who had earned her name when she intruded onto Crystal Lake in 2015 at the time her son was rearing her grandchild? Or would the preener prove to be the rather skittish male from Halfmoon, which we had finally caught and placed bands on last July? As Linda’s crisp photo shows, the preener was “Yellow over Mint, Silver over Red-stripe” — neither Grandma nor her evasive mate. 

Linda knows this surprise visitor to Halfmoon better than anyone. You see, Yellow over Mint is “Mabel”, the female that has been a regular intruder into Linda’s lake since 2011. Years after Linda and our team had begun reporting Mabel as an intruder on our lakes, we expanded the study area to include Mable Lake and learned that Mabel was not a roving nonbreeder but the breeding female there. Mable is a tiny 25 acre lake near Tomahawk. With food so limited by the size of the lake, Mabel and her unbanded mate have struggled reproductively. Twice in the past three years the pair has hatched a chick but lost it at six to seven weeks of age — just on the brink of fledging.

Mabel’s breeding woes pale in comparison to the nightmare that befell her in 2019. As I described in a post last summer, Mabel swallowed someone’s fishing line on about June 20th of last year, was incapacitated by lead toxicosis, and only survived owing to Raptor Education Group’s heroic emergency surgery and extensive efforts at treatment and rehabilitation. Rescuing Mabel from lead sinkers was only half the battle. Although the REGI team had done what they could to feed her and get her fit for release, it was far from certain that she would be able to recover sufficiently to survive in the wild. In fact, we lost track of her after she was let go last July on Lake Alice. We simply hoped for the best, knowing full well that few loons survive a severe bout of lead poisoning.

Yet there Mabel was yesterday, looking (according to Linda) none the worse for wear. Indeed, having survived two migrations since her debacle, she has clearly returned to form. Mabel is still not back to her former status; she has lost her territory and joined the ranks of the many displaced female breeders who wait — often for years — for breeding vacancies to occur. But just surviving long enough to join that queue is a huge victory for Mabel — and for those of us who dared to hope that she could come back.