One of the pleasing sights of spring in the Northwoods is that of a territorial pair of loons, foraging side by side. No doubt the myth of lifetime fidelity of loons to their mates arises, at least in part, from the tight association of female and male loons at this time. Their apparent devotion to each other, their compulsion to remain together at all times, the touching plaintive wails that keep them in contact when they chance to become separated for a brief period all recall young human couples with limitless possibilities before them.
During the past three weeks in Minnesota and Wisconsin, I have seen many loon pairs foraging, resting, and preening together. It is truly heart-warming — to a degree. You see, once the territory resettlement period — the first three weeks after ice-out, roughly — has come to a close, loon pairs should be nesting, which means that humans watching out for “their loon pair” should see only one pair member or the other on the water.
Egg-laying marks the start of the nerve-wracking 28-day period of incubation where innumerable things could go wrong. A raccoon could wander by; an eagle could flush the incubating bird and feast on the eggs; a sudden downpour could turn a nest that seemed safely above water level into egg soup, cooling the eggs and killing the embryos. But one single cause of incubation failure has emerged as the single greatest threat to loon breeding success in Wisconsin and Minnesota in the past decade. The agent, a single species of black fly with a peculiar taste for loon blood, has recently surpassed even egg predation by raccoons and their ilk as a cause of nesting failure. When hundreds of black flies surround incubating loons and bite them mercilessly on the head and nape, the agony can become too awful to bear, causing the pair to abandon the nest. In recent years, black fly survival and persistence dictate how productive an entire loon population will be. It is that simple.
Yesterday, five of us — four members of the loon research team and a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio — ventured out onto the Whitefish Chain to mop up the few territorial pairs that we had not yet been able to visit this year. The trip was memorable for more than loons. An unexpectedly stiff west wind turned Middle Whitefish into a seething Lake Superior, forcing us to beach our motorboat prematurely at Boyd Lodge. (It took four Blizzards at DQ in Crosslake to help us move on after that hair-raising experience!)
Despite sketchy conditions, we visited nine new territorial pairs. We were thrilled when Kate spotted an incubating loon in a protected cove of Pig Lake. But that was the only territorial pair we scouted that was sitting on eggs. All others behaved as if the ice had just come off: they preened, rested, and foraged side by side. What would have been a cheerful sight in mid-May causes consternation now. Sixty to seventy percent of all pairs should be incubating eggs at this point in the season. Sadly, the featured image from Sibley-South depicts the situation in many of these lakes at present: two perfect golden-brown eggs — and loons nowhere nearby.