We have been out all night for the past week capturing and marking adult loons and chicks. It is tiring work. Last night, for example, we had to carry our 14 foot motorboat off of a highway shoulder and into Sunday Lake. Next, we hefted it down a long flight of steep stairs, out a long narrow dock and into a marsh to reach the Minocqua-Huber Bay territory. My back still aches! But these visits were productive. In both cases, we captured a male hatched in the study area, his unmarked mate, and their two chicks. So our strenuous efforts were rewarded. (The Sunday male is a fifteen-year-old who was hatched on Seventeen Lake; the Minocqua male is only six and was reared on Brandy Lake.)
Our third lake of the night has a public landing. It was a breeze to back the trailer up and slide the boat into the weedy, pike-rich waters of Little Bearskin Lake. For a change, we were not sweating profusely and breathing hard as we began our improbable search for the pair and their young. However, we were not prepared for what we discovered.
The visit began routinely. We motored slowly to the middle of the lake to listen for the birds, as we often do. Within a minute, a bird wailed in the southeast corner. We were thrilled, because we seemed to have found the family quickly. The loon that had called was, in fact, only the female from the pair, who had wandered off separately from the male and chicks. Nevertheless, she responded strongly to our chick calls and was easy to scoop out of the water. As we removed her from the capture net, we were alarmed to find that she had a fishing lure and monofilament line wrapped tightly around her left leg.
Fishing line is unkind to wildlife. The very properties that make it attractive to anglers — its strength and thinness — give fishing line the ability to cut deeply and mercilessly into the flesh of animals unfortunate enough to become entangled in it. As the photo above shows, the female’s left leg was tightly wrapped, and a lure and hook had become attached to her leg.
Linda was able to cut away the line that had pierced the scaly, keratinized outer layer of the female’s left leg (see video below) and remove the attached lure. We are concerned about the raw tissue that was exposed by this piercing, but Linda applied antibacterial ointment, and we are hopeful that she will recover.
An injury to any loon is painful, but this one was doubly so. This mother of two chicks is the second oldest loon in our study area. She is at least 31 years old! First marked in 1996 on West Horsehead, she raised 19 chicks with three different males on that lake but was evicted in 2018 and fell off of our radar. We were delighted to see that she had resettled on the very productive Little Bearskin territory this spring with the 18 year-old male there. The two healthy chicks she has raised with him provide further evidence that females retain the ability to produce young during their later years.
But we worry. At 3500 grams, she is 250 grams or so lighter than when we captured her several years ago. This, the fact that she had left the male to care for the chicks last night, and the odd not-quite-wails that she uttered after we released her might indicate that she has been compromised by this angling injury.
In fact, she and we were extraordinarily lucky. Most “off-chick” adults — those not tending their chicks — are difficult to find at night and capture. Only the fact that we stumbled into her before we found the male and chicks allowed us to catch her, free her from the tightly-wrapped fishing line, and treat her injured leg. Now, at least, she has a fighting chance to resume her parental responsibilities, regain lost weight, return to her Florida winter quarters — and perhaps return again in 2022.