An Inauspicious Start

I have had a whirlwind last 24 hours. It began last night just after 10pm (Pacific), when I realized that I did not have the key to the storage unit in Rhinelander where we leave our car over the winter. No, I thought, that key is in lockdown in my office at Chapman. An hour and a half later, I had convinced campus security to let me into the science building, retrieved the key, and returned home to Irvine. At that point, I had about 4 hours of sleep to look forward to before heading to LAX and thence to Rhinelander. As I tossed and turned, trying to empty my mind for sleep, I burned more potential hours of rest. In the end, I got about two and a half hours.

But the worm turned during my trip. I polished off a troublesome article review assignment on the plane, dozed a bit afterwards, and arrived in Rhinelander before 2pm. Following an awkward and damp 2-and-a-half mile trek along Highway 8 to the storage box, I tasted sweet victory as the Toyota Corolla I had moth-balled in August instantly purred to life. The disaster of a dead car battery averted, I was suddenly ahead of schedule, so I stopped off at my first lake of the year — Townline, just west of Rhinelander.

Though observing loons on Townline Lake means putting up with the constant whizzing by of cars on County K, Townline has always been one of my favorite lakes. Most of my affection for the lake took root during the residency of a long-term breeder —a very approachable male who defended the territory for at least 24 years, 1994 to 2017. But somehow my warm feelings for S/R,O/G turned into love for the lake, and now I look forward to every visit there.

I was instantly rewarded for my short walk down to the lake’s edge today, when a foraging loon surfaced less than 10 meters from me. The bird made a series of short dives, spending — it seemed — as little time as possible on the lake’s surface. Even so, at that range I had no problem determining that it was unbanded. This surprised me, because the Townline pair, as of August 2019, consisted of a twenty-something female (banded on the lake in 2002, as an adult) and her young mate — the 7-year-old male from Anvil Lake in Vilas County that had replaced my favorite male loon when he failed to return from the winter in 2018. The presence of an unbanded loon that acted very much at home on Townline showed that at least one of these two pair members had not returned from winter or had been evicted from the territory.

I should point out that quick dives and endless foraging bouts, such as I saw today, are the rule during 2- to 3-week-long black fly outbreaks. That is, loons dispense with resting and preening during peak fly season; instead, they spend as much time as possible under the water to avoid the flies. I often wonder what they are doing during these bouts. Since the bouts consume far more hours than loons need to satisfy their energetic needs, they must spend some of this dive time simply swimming underwater, while ignoring any and all terrified fish they pass. So I guess it is not relaxing to be a bluegill during black fly season either!

The black flies that so pester loons have no taste for human blood, but even we human observers dislike them. Abundant flies complicate our efforts to ID loons from leg bands, which is easiest during preening and resting. Indeed, it took me almost 40 minutes to even locate the mate of the unbanded loon I first saw foraging near the shore this afternoon. This second bird too was dodging the relentless dipterans, diving constantly and spending only a few seconds on the surface between bouts. Luckily, this individual was tame and turned out to be the now-8-year-old male hatched on Anvil. When he began cozying up to the unbanded bird I had seen earlier, it became clear that the old female is gone from Townline.

I looked quickly for a nest, circling the little island that the Townline pair almost always uses. I found nothing and suspect that to the female turnover and the black fly abundance together have pushed back nesting at least four weeks on Townline this year. Judging from the cloud of hundreds of flies that hounded (but did not bite) me as I searched the island, several more days or a week will pass before this new couple can consider laying eggs. As thick as the flies were today, they were worse ten days ago, as this video shared by Linda shows.

So I guess we can take heart that we are moving in the right direction!