Help Us Solve This

I just read a story about an Arctic research team that has been hamstrung by the pandemic. They are trapped in quarantine in northern Germany, awaiting the all-clear before they can conduct their crucial research on the melting patterns in polar ice. Their vigil is especially tense, because rising spring temperatures are likely to set in motion the very melting patterns they spend all year planning and waiting for before they can reach the Arctic to document them.

Although their situation is more dire and their mission more vital than my own, I know how these scientists feel. Recently, we too had to scale back our research efforts owing to the pandemic by abandoning plans for a thorough early-season census. Meanwhile, the virus-free loons have returned to their territories and are going about their nesting preparation, as they always do. They must be wondering where the inquisitive humans in their red canoes have gone.

Our field effort is not at a complete standstill. In fact, Linda has heroically visited dozens of lakes in the southern portion of our study area to ID returning pair members. She is perfecting the art of recording loon bands while keeping one eye on her grandkids! And Al and Nigel have patiently documented the male and female returnees on West Horsehead and Sherry, respectively.

Reports of loon activity of any kind are invaluable to us. Please send notes, photos, and any other records you might have of loons on our study lakes. These reports might be very basic, like: “I saw no loons on my lake until May 6th, and now there is only a loner.” or “There is a breeding pair on my lake, and I have seen them multiple times since ice-out”. A report might include a smidge of info on identity like “There is a regular pair on my lake; our neighbor spotted a red band on the left leg of one of them, when it preened”. And a few over-achievers might get very detailed information, like: “A loon pair was first spotted on April 26th. The male’s bands are copper over green on right and red over silver on left; the female is silver over blue on right, green over mint burgundy on left. They have a nest that we first noticed on May 8th on the south side of the island off the boat landing; GPS coordinates are N45.70063, W089.62474. The male engaged in a lengthy battle with an unbanded intruder on April 26th, during which he lost some feathers just behind his right eye.” Anyway….any loon-related info that you send us from our study lakes is greatly appreciated, because we have no data at all from 80% of them. Photos are tremendously valuable too, especially if they show a colored leg band or two that we can use to ID an individual. The earliest most of the team can possibly arrive in Wisconsin is May 27th. Thanks for any info and photos you can send to me at wpiper@chapman.edu to help us fill in the gap in our records. 

Stuck in southern California as I am, I have become fixated on the changing seasons in Wisconsin. Although recent days have been wintry in Oneida County, typical May conditions are a few scant days away. Nesting has already begun; Linda’s breeding pair shrugged off some early territorial excitement and are now sitting on eggs — while all of our team members except Linda are sitting in lockdown.

Yet there is great hope for the research team this year, once the virus releases us from its clutches. Following decisions yesterday by my daughter and a friend of hers from college to devote their summers to helping with our research, we now have four new recruits to the project, two postdoctoral fellows from Chapman, and yours truly — seven researchers in all. This is an embarrassment of riches, because we now face the dilemma of how to equip and house all of these folks.

This brings me to the burning reason for my post. Please let me know if you might have space where some of the team can stay. While we have comfortable housing for a team of 3 or 4, thanks to the continuing generosity of friends of the Project, we have now outgrown it, and need to add additional housing (near Rhinelander, if possible). Secondly — in keeping with our lean research model, which maximizes lake coverage — we need 2 to 3 more vehicles so that each team member can visit lakes on their own. (I have recently learned the good news and bad news about renting cars for 21 to 24 year-olds: the good news is that it can be done; the bad is that it costs twice the normal rate, so that no one in their right mind would do it!) I would happily commit to: 1) paying a fee for the use of a vehicle from about 7 June to 31 July, 2) maintaining any loaner that folks might provide in good condition throughout the summer, and 3) repairing any damage to such a vehicle that might occur during our research effort. Please contact me at wpiper@chapman.edu, if you can help with housing, vehicles, or both. 

Meanwhile, we continue our social distancing. Each passing sunset reminds me that time is marching on and that the loons are going on with their lives, despite our absence. Like the international crew in Germany, I wonder when on Earth I will be able to get back to my life’s work.