The Loons Are Back!

Inevitably the news comes in the form of an excited text message from Linda. This year it came on March 30: “Yippee! Clune is back”. “Clune”, a tame 23-year-old territorial male on Muskellunge Lake, got his name as a result of an autocorrect/typing error of mine a decade or so ago. He has been one of our most successful male breeders, having fledged 17 chicks on two different territories with at least four different females since 2003. Last year he gave us a scare when he showed up a week after ice-out and had to drive the neighboring male from Deer Lake off of Muskellunge in order to reclaim it for himself. This year Clune left no doubt: he arrived as soon as the water opened up on Muskellunge. He is alone at the moment. This is not unusual; males commonly arrive on the breeding grounds a few days ahead of females. Linda says that he spent some of his alone time giving soft-wails, as if calling for his missing mate. “Honey”, as Linda calls Clune’s equally-accomplished breeding partner, should be along shortly.

Clune is not the only loon back in the study area. I have reports of loons back on two more lakes that are completely or partially open. In short, it is early April and already the loons are returning to their breeding territories. Since I am in the midst of an extremely busy spring semester of instruction, and am two-thirds of a continent away, I can only sigh and try to remain patient. I am trying to stay positive. After all, I am only six weeks — nine quizzes, two midterms, a scientific report, two final exams, and fifty-four office hours — away from joining the loons!

Fortunately, others are stepping up in my absence. We have a large and seasoned team that will help me learn which of our banded loons have returned. Gabby will be sneaking away from her graduate work at Illinois to cover the Wisconsin study area in early May, and Kristin will dodge her major professors in Madison for a week and zip over to Crosslake, Minnesota to begin covering our brand new population on the Whitefish Chain. Three other veterans are returning from last year: Brian, a postdoc at Chapman, and Martha and Allison (my daughter). Brian will be on site in Wisconsin for most of the summer. Martha and Allison will scout lakes and help with capture in Crosslake in July.

Crosslake??? Minnesota??? That’s right! One of my responsibilities as the new National Loon Center Scientist will be to roughly double the number of breeding loon pairs under intensive study in the Upper Midwest by starting an investigation in the state that supports as many breeding loons as the remaining 47 contiguous United States combined. Our new Minnesota population, centered at what will be the National Loon Center headquarters in Crosslake, should equal the Wisconsin population in number of marked pairs under study by 2025.

Why a second study population? Our worrisome population data from Wisconsin has made it clear that we need better data across the southern fringe of the common loon’s breeding range. This will allow us to determine, for example, if the dip in the northern Wisconsin population is a local phenomenon or part of a broader pattern of decline. Strangely there are no long-term demographic data in Minnesota that permit us to construct a population model. So we simply do not know how healthy the Minnesota population is. As a worrywart, I am concerned that Minnesota’s loons might be in trouble, like those in Wisconsin. After all, Minnesota is right next door and the loons there face a similar set of environmental challenges. We shall see!

In the meantime, keep me in mind. And let me know if you see any interesting loon behaviors or any loons in trouble. I shall be mired in paperwork for the time being and connected to the loons only by Linda’s striking photos – like the one above of Clune from a few days ago — and reports I receive from folks on the lakes.