A Worrisome Start

Although I am stuck in California teaching for another few weeks, others have been hitting the lakes. Based on thirty or so lakes from which I have had reports — mostly Linda’s work, but also a few lake residents — we have an early read on the return rate of adult loons from last year.

Let me explain. April and May are exciting months for the Loon Project, because we hustle from lake to lake to see which of our banded adults have returned and which have not. In a typical year, the vast majority of our study animals have managed to survive the winter, navigate fall and spring migrations successfully, and take possession of the territories they occupied the previous year. The figure hovers around 80 to 90%. A high rate of annual survival is vital to our population. The low reproductive rate of loons is sufficient to sustain the population only because most adults survive each year.

During years when I am able to steal away from my pedagogical commitments, I find these “censusing” visits oddly thrilling. On my first lake visit of the year, I fancy that the male and female both pause for a moment, wheel in my direction, and think, “Where’s he been?” This might not be pure imagination; after all, I have been observing most of these individuals for a decade or more.

Last year seemed an exception to the typical high rate of adult return. Fully a quarter of the adults that we left behind safe and sound in the early fall of 2019 failed to come back in the spring of 2020. While some of these adults had merely been evicted from their territories, most were dead. Coupled with our recent finding of population decline in northern Wisconsin, the low 2020 return rate weighed on my mind last spring. On the other hand, return rates bounce around. So I tried to avoid jumping to the conclusion that adult survival was going downhill.

Recent reports from the lakes this year have placed concerns about adult survival front and center again. Each of Linda’s almost-daily census visits seems to bring fresh news about a missing adult or breeding pair. Early on, Linda reported that a new male had replaced the long-time resident male on Manson. Okay, that happens, I thought. Nothing to worry about. The Deer Lake female, freshly marked in 2020, also turned up missing. A Halfmoon Lake visit brought no better news; the 2020 female from there was gone as well. Hildebrandt and Julia, always occupied by pairs and frequent chick producers, were vacant. Linda’s trip to Nokomis Lake was most devastating of all. Towards the eastern end of the lake, both members of a long-term pair with a consistent record for rearing chicks were AWOL. And Linda turned up only one unmarked loon from the entire 2200-acre Nokomis flowage, which usually supports three breeding pairs.

He did not know it, but Al from West Horsehead produced the straw that broke the camel’s back. His report from this morning that the 8-year-old West Horsehead male had been replaced by a 6-year-old male from neighboring East Horsehead hit me especially hard. The sample had become large enough that I could not longer deny the pattern. Looking at the number of returns right now, we have found only 21 of 31 adult loons that should be on territory. Now, we will track down some of these missing birds. A few will be alive and breeding on a seldom-visited lake near their old territory. And that will give us a momentary lift. But an adult return percentage in the low-70s, as we are seeing for the second straight year, will not sustain our breeding population for long.