Since we band hundreds of loon pairs, we get used to losing pair members here and there. The female on Sunday Lake, newly-banded in 2020, did not return in 2021. Likewise there is a new male on Clear2-Seven Islands, a new female on Towanda, a new male on Harrison Flowage. Some losses of old pair members are gut-shots. The absence of both pair members at Arrowhead reminds us of the tragic close to that lake’s 2020 breeding season. The Baker male’s disappearance is bittersweet; it brings back the recollection of his having reared a mallard duckling in 2019 with his mate. But after many years of watching breeders vanish, I now greet most such losses with only a sigh.
A bit more unsettling than mere disappearances of single birds — and far more interesting to a behavioral ecologist — are cases where breeder loss on one lake has ripple effects on lakes nearby. Since such domino effects seem to occur shortly after ice-out, when our lake coverage is spotty, we must usually guess at what transpired. In 1998 for example, the McGrath and North Two males, which defended adjacent lakes, seemed to switch places for no obvious reason. We inferred at the time that the huge North Two male flew over and evicted the smaller McGrath male, while the McGrath male assuaged his loss by settling on North Two, which his conqueror had just vacated. But we will never know for certain. A similar mystery occurred last year on Upper and Lower Kaubashine, whose males swapped lakes early in the year, before we were there to see how it happened. Again, we surmise that one male evicted the other, and the loser merely filled the victor’s breeding slot.
This year, we had enough observers present at critical moments to read the ripples more precisely. Following the eviction of his mate on May 3rd (Linda’s photo shows that evicted female), the Upper Kaubashine male — yes, the same male that had swapped territories in 2020 — must have decided that his breeding prospects were dim on Upper Kaubashine. So he looked nearby for an alternative. He found it on Silver, a small lake with an artificial nesting platform and a resident, Pat, who misses nothing. On May 9th, the Upper Kaubashine male intruded onto Silver, where the pair was incubating eggs, beat the resident male severely, and forced him to take refuge in a swampy area. The defeated male has not been seen since.
There is a ray of sunshine to share. The Upper Kaubashine male had no interest in sitting on the eggs of his predecessor at Silver, so the lake’s first nest was abandoned. But the usurper wasted little time renesting with the old female at the opposite end of the lake. Boosted in part by the earliness of ice-out this year, the Upper Kaubashine male might actually survive the loss of his mate and a vicious territorial battle of his own and still hatch chicks in June!
The events of the past few weeks on Upper Kaubashine and Silver reveal that chaos on one lake can spill over to others nearby. So if loons are capable of hope, they should hope for peace and tranquility for their neighbors as well as themselves.