An Up Note on Katherine

I have always had mixed feelings about Katherine Lake. At 524 acres, it is far too large to be covered comfortably by canoe. Indeed, for the first 15 years of our study, Katherine was that big lake we drove past on our way to other, smaller lakes. In 2008 one of my field interns put in at the boat landing and found one pair with chicks…then another. We came in at night and banded all four adults. That settled it: Katherine was one of our study lakes — if one that everyone dreaded being assigned to cover. Over time, Katherine became less feared and just another study lake.

Yet Katherine seemed a tough place for loons from early on. In late May of 2009, the female of one of the two banded pairs injured her wing severely and died in short order. Two years later, her mate became hopelessly entangled in fishing line, yet was impossible to capture until he became very weak. He too died. The same year a five-year-old floater on the lake was hooked in the neck by an angler. This loon was caught and de-hooked; but we never saw it afterwards. Six years ago, an evicted male from Lake Seventeen took refuge on Katherine and tried year after year to raise chicks with his mate — without success. The situation seemed to reach an all-time low point in 2020, when, having placed their nest on a small, promising island, the male and his unbanded mate watched one egg and then the other roll off of their oddly sloping nest and into the lake. The male succumbed to lead poisoning on Lake Michigan last fall.

The outlook on Katherine is brighter at the moment. The death of the breeding male last fall opened up an opportunity. In the continuing rash of territory shifting that has occurred around Hazelhurst, a new male and female moved onto Katherine from nearby Lower Kaubashine Lake. The new male has had an especially colorful past. He lived on Upper Kaubashine from 2017 to 2019 and mysteriously moved to Lower Kaubashine in 2020 before finally coming to rest on Katherine three months ago. Thus, he has attempted to breed on three different Hazelhurst lakes in the past three years.

One might think of such an itinerant past as a recipe for disaster or perhaps an indication of poor breeding ability. But the new male has put the lie to all doubters by raising two strapping chicks this year. The Katherine female, who remained on Lower Kaubashine for a week or so in May after her mate left — as if having doubts about the move — was rewarded for following her mate. (Males are the limiting sex in the northern Wisconsin population, so a shortage of potential partners probably helped convince her to pull up stakes and abandon Lower Kaubashine for Katherine.)

So a lake like Katherine that seems snakebit can turn it around. It gets better. My gloomy assessment of Flannery Lake from a few months ago requires revision. Breaking a long streak of breeding frustration and failure, the Flannery pair finally has a healthy chick. I am by nature reluctant to trumpet such achievements, because I fear they will be followed by more struggles. But it is safe to say that Katherine, Flannery — and northern Wisconsin in general — can celebrate a better-than-average breeding year.

The weary Wisconsin Capture Team after our final night of work. August 2nd, 4:30 a.m.