Loon headquarters has been abuzz this week. “Clara has a chick”, Annie announced yesterday. “Bobcat hatched….and Baker’s chick is getting big!”, exclaimed Allison. Martha remarked, “Two Sisters-West has a chick, and the male was really aggressive in defending it from intruders”. Lyn’s report was the most impressive. “All three pairs on Pickerel have chicks,” she declared in her characteristically understated way. Although the featured photo is, as usual, one of Linda Grenzer’s from her lake, Lyn saw a similar picture on the Pickerel-West territory.
In short, loon chicks have been bursting from their shells at a rapid rate in the past week. What’s more, many pairs without chicks are sitting on eggs that have survived for two weeks or more and thus are likely to hatch soon. So the pall that hung in the air just two weeks ago has lifted. As a person who looks obsessively for the negative in any circumstance, I am somewhat at a loss.
The new field observers’ responses to the recent flurry of hatching — and my own — has exposed a telling contrast. All of my teammates are observing loon breeding behavior for the first time. Since everything is new to them, they view the hatching explosion as the norm. Having studied the loons of Oneida County for 27 prior years, though, I see the recent burst of hatches as unusual. And having documented declining breeding success in our population over the past two decades, I was expecting more of the same in 2020. My shoulders, already drooping from carrying too many canoes since the end of May, had been drooping even more than usual in anticipation of another dismal breeding year. Although my teammates have been getting almost blasé about the popping out of many chicks across the study area, the mass emergence has got me standing a little straighter.
Let’s take a quick look, again, at how 2020 compares with 2014. In both years, over 70% of all first nests were abandoned because of black flies, so this should be an apples to apples comparison. As of July 4th, 2014, 14 pairs had chicks — 18 chicks in all — and 40 pairs were still sitting on eggs. After many recent hatches this year, there are now 22 pairs rearing 31 chicks; 25 nests are still active. If we project the likely rate of chick production from the remaining nests this year, 2020 will produce about the same number of chicks (52) that 2014 did (51). Now 2014 was a weak year, so producing the same number of chicks as 2014 is no great shakes. But 2020 looks to have about 20% more chicks reaching five weeks of age than last year. In a swoon of optimism, I am going to view the considerable improvement in loon breeding success from last to this year as the start of a promising trend.