An Ode to the Field Staff

I have never done this before. This year, though, I felt that I made such demands upon the field team of the Loon Project that I should take a moment at the end of the season to talk about each of the stout souls who are pictured above.

Bailee is from Missouri and had never seen a loon before she started in May. Though she does not seem very southern, she gracefully absorbed no end of jokes about being a southerner this summer. (“Missouri is in the Midwest!”, she protested.) She has a cheerful disposition and a ready smile, which were often valuable when we found ourselves seven hours into a night of loon capture, surrounded by thick fog, and unable to find any loons to catch. “I thought I was going to die in the first two weeks of work”, she admitted last night over pizza. “I mean….I couldn’t even lift a canoe onto my truck. After that, I adjusted.” Bailee grew into a committed and strong field observer and really stepped up to assume the duty of netting loons when my back gave out in late July and I needed a break.

Sarah, a Michigander and recent graduate of MSU, exudes a determined confidence. She too found she needed to adjust to all of the canoe lifting and miles of paddling in the first few weeks. After a recent summer studying endangered Piping Plovers, though, Sarah found she enjoyed studying a species that numbered more than a single breeding pair! Sarah became an excellent field worker and contributed in many unseen ways to keep the wheels on the Project spinning. Sarah took the lead, for example, in recording territorial yodels given by males to support an ongoing study we are doing. She also took lots of great photos and helped me start our “Loonstagram” account. (We are “loonproject”, for those with an Instagram account and a desire to follow us!) Sarah will always be remembered as the person who undertook a thorough search for — and ultimately found — a boat trailer key that had been lost for seven years!

Tia is a current Chapman student who took and excelled in my Intro Bio course there. Tia grew up in southern California and had never spent meaningful time in the East or Midwest. It was sometimes funny to witness her reactions to the climate and conditions in northern Wisconsin. My personal favorite: “It’s SO GREEN here!” Tia found the hordes of mosquitos that hounded us in the evenings as bizarre and horrid. Frankly, she showed enormous guts in taking on an internship on an intensive field project for the first time and in an area she had not visited previously. Like all new folks, she took some time to learn the ropes and become productive in the field. But she did adjust. She eventually got so proficient with banding that she helpfully barked out instructions for us at each step in the process!

Jordana is a UConn Huskie, and she brings an added northeastern twang and attitude to the study. Already a thousand miles from home during the training period in Wisconsin, Jordana bravely volunteered to venture farther west still to help build the new Minnesota study population. She is unusual in taking time to think and ask questions about loons based on her experiences and observations. It was Jordana, for example, who became concerned about what appeared a high rate of nest abandonment by loons during June. She advanced the hypothesis — which I look forward to testing — that the heat wave during early June might have caused eggs to overheat on many nests. She and Katy made invaluable efforts to pioneer our field study in Minnesota by finding new lakes, loons, and friendly lake residents.

Like Jordana, Katy volunteered to help put together a marked loon population in Minnesota. A Minnesotan herself, Katy quickly took to the work of loon study. Her skills as a canoeist and boater, tireless work ethic, and willingness to tackle any job made her immensely valuable to the study. She and Jordana developed a huge network of friends and contacts in the Crosslake area and found dozens of loon pairs with chicks that we could capture and mark as we worked to establish a new study population. Katy is an accomplished trouble-shooter. I will always remember how Katy solved the problem of how to strap a canoe onto Bailee’s truck. While I gnashed my teeth, pulled out my hair, and got nothing done, Katy calmly searched for a cargo rack that would fit, ordered it, and installed it!

Finally, Martha and Allison, veterans from 2020 field season, agreed to return for two weeks in July to help with loon scouting and capture in Minnesota. This wasn’t easy. Each had job responsibilities and needed to carve out time for the loons. As experienced hands, these two took lots of pressure off of me as we bought a boat and motor, readied our supplies and equipment, sweated equipment failure — and, most important, caught and marked Minnesota loons and chicks at a record pace (over ten a night) to lay the groundwork for a field study of marked individuals starting in 2022.

We on the Loon Project are in the habit of doing more with less. Our ability to accomplish so much depends upon the willingness of young people like this year’s Wisconsin and Minnesota field teams to tackle new physical challenges, conquer them, and emerge with high quality data on loon behavior and ecology. (In the process, of course, we hope that they have grown and acquired valuable field experience that will serve them well in their careers.) I am immensely proud of Bailee, Sarah, Tia, Jordana, Katy, Martha, and Allison. I shake hands and fill out paperwork, but these folks really ARE the project. Thanks, you guys!