Two Days on Kego

There is a certain sameness to each of our lake visits. At the boat landing, I don my PFD, slide my solo canoe gently into the water, place my circuit box in front of the seat, step gingerly into the center of the boat while grasping both gunwales, and urge my canoe away from the dock. Once clear of the landing, I scan the lake with binoculars to find the breeding pair. We maintain contact with the loons for exactly an hour, a period of time that — we have found — allows us to assess the birds’ breeding stage, find any nest or chicks, and get a snapshot of their daily lives.

And yet each visit is unique.

I had cause to reflect upon the uniqueness of lake visits this year. Since we had a strong and experienced field team in Wisconsin, I was free to focus on Minnesota in 2023. In late May, when I joined Eric Andrews to help covering our Minnesota lakes, I had a vivid recollection of Roosevelt, Sibley, Big Pine, and the Whitefish Chain from two previous years. But I could not recall whether I had been to Perry or Adney or both. I kept confusing Shaffer with Lynch, Buchite with Square and Sand. And I had not even visited scores of our Minnesota study lakes during daylight hours. This year, that changed.

Among my most vivid recollections from 2023 in Minnesota is Kego Lake, a shallow 120-hectare water body in the Fifty Lakes region. Kego is beautiful and quiet. Vast stretches of its shoreline are undeveloped. During my two visits there, I often caught myself thinking I was on a remote northern lake.

Kego appears a promising lake for loons. The lake contains two permanent islands. Each is far enough from the mainland that only a very reckless raccoon would dare to swim out to it in hopes of plundering a loons’ nest. While its depth limits the variety of fishes found in Kego, perch, crappie, and bluegill are present in good numbers.

When I first launched a canoe onto Kego on June 6th, I spotted a loon pair preening off of the eastern island. On a hunch, I paddled between the duo and the island. The male abruptly stopped preening and approached my canoe. Heeding this dead giveaway, I quickly located a nest with one egg on the adjacent shore of the island, took a hasty GPS point, and skedaddled so that the loons could incubate the egg if they wished.

I returned to Kego on July 17th. I tried to rein in my expectations for a hatch. After all, the pair had a poor track record. In 2021 and 2022 they had nested in this promising habitat and failed to raise a chick. Yet somehow, quite irrationally, I had hope for this year based on the male’s determination to protect his nest the month before. Initially, the pair was nowhere in sight. But when I paddled out to the nest island and brushed aside numerous leaves, sticks and other debris that had fallen onto the nest, I found the telltale scattering of small, angular eggshell fragments that signifies a successful hatch.

An innate worrier, I scanned the lake anxiously. “Where are they?” I muttered to myself. Moments later, my fear subsided. The pair and four-week-old chick were foraging intensively in the northeastern corner. So not only had a chick hatched; the chick had grown into a vigorous and enthusiastic diver.

I paddled cheerfully towards the loons to confirm that all three were healthy and estimate chick size for our records. As I drew near, the family began to linger on the surface between dives and eye me suspiciously. I backed off and smiled to see the male and female bracket their offspring between them protectively as they slowly led it off to the southeast and out of my path. Recalling the male’s assertive nest defense six weeks before, I concluded that this year’s pair was determined to leave their past failures behind. This year, it seemed, they would exploit the propitious breeding conditions on this lovely and distinctive lake and fledge a chick without fail.

Crude video of the Kego pair leading their chick slowly away from me after a foraging bout.