As I mentioned a few posts ago, the Loon Project is expanding into Minnesota, the state that contains more breeding loons than any other. Of course, our plan to establish a second study area 200 miles west of the current one in Wisconsin is ambitious. So I have enlisted the help of five LP veterans to help us cover our sprawling study area. These sturdy souls include Gabby and Linda, who are keeping track of our Wisconsin birds until the bulk of the team members arrive in a week, and Kristin, who, joined by new team member Katy, is taking our first look at the Minnesota study population. All of these folks have really stepped up for the Project.
Early-season work is both arduous and exciting. Arduous because we have so many loon pairs to visit. Arduous because these now hundreds of pairs must be visited one at a time and each pair member observed until we are confident we know its identity. But also exciting because we have not seen these birds since the previous summer, if at all. During the fall, winter, and spring periods, many of our loons have died or been evicted by younger rivals. And many of these young upstarts are birds we banded as chicks five to ten years ago on adjacent lakes.
Minnesota is a whole different ballgame. When we decided to take on the task of starting a new study population on the lakes in and around Crosslake, we knew that we were making a pledge to cover brand new lakes whose loons were abundant but little known. We also understood that, unlike our breeding pairs in Wisconsin, most of the Minnesota loons defended territories on the massive Whitefish Chain, where our protocol of dropping solo canoes in at boat landings and paddling to the birds was unworkable. In short, we were pledging to take on a new study population that required a completely different mode of research.
I couldn’t wait to get started. Though tethered to my instructional responsibilities in California, I gazed at these unknown Minnesota lakes on Google Earth and felt my excitement build. I collected what information I could about the lakes and loons from folks in the area. I studied maps of loon activity and banding logs provided by Kevin Kenow of USGS, who captured and marked a few dozen birds on the Chain five to six years ago and generously shared his knowledge and data. And I scratched my head.
Since I was out of commission, I needed to find someone with great knowledge of loons and a willingness to confront the daunting challenge of making our first visit to the Chain. I told Kristin that I needed her to: 1) visit an unknown study area, 2) census dozens of unknown pairs, most of which would be unmarked, 3) travel by large motorboat on an unfamiliar lake with tricky wave and wind conditions, 4) work out all of the logistics of this work with a group of unfamiliar (but enthusiastic) Minnesotans, and 5) get permission from her advisor to suspend her Ph.D. preparation and take on the project at all. I am not sure how I managed to ask her with a straight face. Predictably, though, Kristin’s response was: “Oh – that would be a blast!”. And so Kristin has begun this crucial reconnaissance. Joined
by Katy, a new LP team member who is fluent in the local dialect and has turned out to be a quick study, Kristin has now covered all but a few nooks and crannies of the Chain. As of this writing, K and K have found 45 breeding pairs on the Chain and ten active nests, like the one shown above. Most of the pairs are unmarked, but they report 14 of Kevin’s banded adults are still on territory. (These marked individuals will be most valuable, as they will permit us to make preliminary estimates of territory eviction and survival for the new study population.) K and K will wrap up their coverage of the big water today, they say, and spend the next few days visiting small lakes adjacent to Whitefish. These small
lake visits will no doubt bring a tear to Kristin’s eye, as they will recall the work she used to do back in the Wisconsin study area.
Kristin and Katy’s effort to establish a foundation for our Minnesota work epitomizes the work of the Loon Project. We pride ourselves in carrying out research that is uncomfortable and physically-demanding, yet also exacting and painstaking. We tackle research questions that most others deem inaccessible. The work just seems too difficult, our study animals too recalcitrant. How can one accumulate sufficient data to test hypotheses about animal behavior and ecology under these conditions?