Hoping for a Miracle on Maud

When Annie reported a chick on Maud three days ago, I felt only fleeting elation. Yes, the loons in Oneida County are struggling again this year, so any chick seen on any lake is cause for celebration. On the other hand, this chick was on Maud.

To say that Maud Lake has a checkered past with respect to loon breeding is to lean too far towards the positive. As Annie’s photo shows, Maud is a beautiful little lake with lots of nesting habitat — but the lake also has a lot to prove. Over the 27 years that we have covered it, no lake in our study area has consistently looked so promising for breeding as Maud and produced so little.

The lake seemed productive in the 1990s, when we first began to cover it. According to lake residents, the pair fledged two chicks in 1991. After a few off years — at the time, we viewed the chick lost at two weeks in 1994 as bad luck —  the lake seemed to recover in 1995, as the pair raised another chick to fledging age. In the quarter century since then, however, Maud has been the lake where young, hopeful breeders — and older, established ones — go to flounder. No chick has been raised to five weeks of age since 1995, and a good many have been lost before that age. Between 2007 and 2009, the pair had an especially bad run; they hatched and lost 4 chicks before 3 and half weeks of age during that stretch. Almost for our own morale, we have covered Maud only spottily since then — and never seen a pair raise a chick to adulthood. 

If it were a mere matter of lack of nesting habitat, the story of Maud would not be so gut-wrenching. After all, 10 to 20% of our study lakes have little or no natural nesting habitat; others have only one island, patch of marsh, or bog that a respectable adult loon would consider for nesting. There is no shame in a lake lacking good places for a loon nest. But Maud has an abundance of nestable habitat. Indeed, virtually the entire 3.8 km of shoreline is either bog or marsh. Add to this bounty of nesting options two islands far enough from shore to make raccoons reconsider the swim and you have what appears to be a nesting paradise for loons. And loons — many different loons — have been lured to nest on Maud over the years. 

It is hard to say what is wrong with Maud. Frequent loss of young chicks suggests that food might be limited, predators abundant, or both. The tragedy of the lake, in my view,  is that adult loons that might be trying to breed elsewhere are lured to Maud to waste a year possibly hatching — but never rearing offspring. Maud is sort of a microcosm of what has happened across the study area since 1993 — smaller-than-normal chicks, high chick mortality — and few fledglings. Except that Maud, by not producing a single chick in 25 years, has taken the county-wide affliction to an extreme. 

Annie, like all of my observers this year, was new to loon research this year. She was happy to spend a day “roving” to lakes where no marked loon pair was known to be established and where chick production was thought to be unlikely. She was justifiably thrilled to turn up a pair with a small chick. I only wish she had not found it on Maud.