Reckless Optimism on Katherine

Despite 31 years of field research, I have seen very few dead loons. The scientist within me should know better, but I think my rather limited exposure to loon mortality has led some part of me to presume that adult loons die on migration or on the wintering grounds, not during summer months. Spring and summer, after all, are times of renewal, of bountiful food and comfortable living conditions. It seems inconceivable that loons could perish in the warm, friendly environs of the Northwoods.

But this is an anthropocentric view. While most humans that we encounter on the lakes are relaxed and smiling, loons — and all other non-human species for that matter — are in a constant struggle to ward off predators, parasites, and pathogens and keep themselves and their young alive. Loons are not on vacation from April to October; they have merely traded one set of hazards for another.

Four members of the Wisconsin loon team were reminded of the incessant fragility of loons’ lives during a visit to Katherine Lake in late May. Split into teams of two in separate canoes for training of the new field team, we first paddled to the traditional nesting site on a small island towards the southern end of the lake’s main bay. In case nesting was under way, we circled at a distance. As we completed our brief circumnavigation, our brains struggled to make sense of a visual anomaly on the west side of the island. It was Ethan who first pieced things together. “There is a dead bird,” he remarked.

After approaching to check on Ethan’s assertion, we were greeted with a macabre spectacle. Amidst a vast mound of loon feathers lay remnants of the Katherine male, a well-traveled individual with a fascinating life history. A few feet away from his carcass was a nest containing a single intact egg.

There was no need to round up the usual suspects. An eagle, it seemed, had surprised the incubating male, ended his life, and closed the curtain on Katherine’s chances for breeding success for the year. The telltale plucking of the avian carcass after the kill clinched it.

Yet this is not the end of the story. Blithely uninformed about the recent horror that had taken place on the lake, two young loons — an eight-year-old female and a seven-year-old male — had quickly paired up and made their own plans. Even as we mourned the violent passing of the old resident male, these two individuals foraged and preened calmly about the lake, apparently savoring the prize they had inherited.

Young settlers carefully choose the lake on which they wish to breed on the basis of its overall size relative to their natal lake. I was cheered to see that the new settlers on Katherine were well-suited to the vast size of their new territory. The eight-year-old female was from Two Sisters-East, a good-sized lake not far south of Katherine; the seven-year-old male was from massive Lake Tomahawk, a short distance northwards. Still, there seemed little chance that this confident new couple would attempt to nest in 2023.

When Emily sent me the photo above, I was doubly surprised. With the disturbing sight we had observed on Katherine still etched in my mind, I had crossed the lake off the list of territories where chicks might be produced. Moreover, I had never dreamed that the new pair would choose to nest on the precise spot where an eagle had ended the life of and then feasted upon the old male. From Emily’s photo, you can see vestiges of the attack. The incubating bird (the eight-year-old female in this case) sits placidly on a new set of eggs, oblivious to the smattering of her predecessor’s feathers that surround her.

There is something exhilarating about unbridled and heedless optimism. Stuck as we often are in the past and present, it is often difficult to see what good might come down the road. And I have to say that the brazen breeding attempt of the new young Katherine pair has changed my outlook. If an inexperienced loon couple can dare an eagle to attack them — and even more so if they can pull off a hatch — perhaps a breeding season that began wretchedly can end on an up note.