Raising of a child by one parent alone is common enough in humans that we have words to describe the phenomenon. Since humans are highly social, rearing of a child by a single parent — and a support network of friends and relatives — can be effective. Not so in loons. The loon breeding system could be called “obligate biparental care”, because both male and female are usually required to fledge even a single chick. When one parent is lost during chick-rearing, the typical result is rapid death of the chick or chicks, either because the loon that replaces the dead parent actively attacks them or because they receive much less food and protection from a single parent and perish from other causes. In fact, sustained single-parent loon families only occur when one parent dies or is evicted and the remaining parent somehow manages to sequester the chick from the new adult that fills the breeding vacancy. The occurrence is rare enough that I remember all of the cases in our study area. 

When the Washburn female was injured in 2000, she deserted her family and turned her attention to her own survival. Though it seemed heartless at the time, this decision made sense. Even though helping to rear the chick she left in the male’s care would have increased her reproductive fitness, she was right not to risk her life for the chick. An adult that sacrifices itself for a chick is throwing away many future years of breeding success. After the female left the family, the male spent his time at the northern end of the lake, feeding the chick vigorously when he could. Somehow he managed to fledge it. 

In 2006, the Garth male vanished just after the chick hatched, leaving the female alone to raise it. A single loon mother is in a bind; she lacks the size to intimidate and drive off other loons and ability to give the territorial yodel that could prevent many intruders from landing on her lake in the first place. Instead, single females must tolerate visits by many intruders and hope to keep them away from the chick. A new male soon took over Garth and paired with the female. The female and her new mate seemed to reach some sort of uneasy agreement; she spent time with him, while he neither fed nor attacked his step-chick. The chick, which we banded late in the year and affectionately call “Stripe Hell” because his bands are blue-stripe over taupe-stripe, red-stripe over silver, ultimately survived to adulthood. In fact, as an adult, this male claimed the breeding territory on Lee Lake in 2012 and produced chicks there in 2016 and 2017. Following his eviction from Lee in 2018, this product of a one-parent family settled on South Blue in 2019 and then resettled on Miller Lake this year, where he is now raising a chick with his mate. Apparently having been raised in a single-parent home does not prevent a loon from leading a successful adult life. 

Things do not always go smoothly for step-chicks. When the male succumbed to some unknown ailment on Flannery in 2015, he left his mate alone to fend for their 2-week-old chicks. In this case, the female led the chicks down to Velvet Lake, which attaches to Flannery at its southern end. When a neighboring male took over, he found the chicks and pecked them viciously, killing one and forcing the survivor to hide underneath docks in Velvet to escape his marauding stepfather. This chick never received as much food as a chick normally would; we are not certain if it survived the ordeal.  

Among the several single-parent families we have recorded in 28 years, Squash-Northwest is perhaps the most memorable. The Squash-Northwest male in 2012 hatched a chick with his mate but was injured and died when the chick was two weeks old. Left alone with a small chick, his mate not only protected and raised it to adulthood, she also found a new mate. She was able somehow to balance the demands of her ravenous youngster and the male that she paired with — while keeping them physically separated so that the replacement male did not harm his step-chick. On one visit, we would find her staying close to the chick, feeding it and fending off eagles at the northwestern end; on the next visit, the female would forage and rest with her new mate on southern side of the lake, while the chick hid near shore a kilometer away. While we marveled at the ability of the female to lead this double life and thus to keep the chick alive, we were on pins and needles during the entire chick-rearing period. It seemed inconceivable that the female could sustain her balancing act for the many weeks it would take until the chick was old enough to fend for itself. On each visit to the territory, we expected to find that the chick was dead or severely injured following an attack by its stepfather. Yet the fatherless chick, pictured above and dubbed “Miracle Chick”, not only survived but grew by leaps and bounds.

This year we have a new — and increasingly dark — variation on the single-mother theme playing out on Arrowhead Lake. About a month ago, the right wing of the 12-year-old breeding male became injured. (It is a soft tissue injury, we think, as we did not find a break when we inspected the wing after capture a week ago.) The injured male has engaged less and less with his mate and two chicks over the past month. Instead he spends his time resting and foraging alone on the southern end of the lake. His mate, a seasoned breeder who has produced at least seven sets of chicks with at least three different males on Madeline Lake and Arrowhead, appeared to step up her chick feedings and attendance to compensate for her mate’s absence. Her efforts seemed to pay off; the chick we caught a week ago had achieved a healthy weight, and its sibling (which we did not catch) was of roughly equal size. But the situation has degenerated in the past week. The male, though still alert and feeding himself, shows no signs of recovery from his wing injury and continues to avoid the family. In the past few days, the six-week-old chick that we did not capture was lost (to an eagle, according to lake residents). Today, Lyn reported that intruders landing on the lake roamed about it at will, because neither male nor female showed any semblance of territory defense. It seems only a matter of time before a new breeding pair takes over Arrowhead, and that will likely lead to the demise of the surviving chick. 

Let’s try to be optimistic. If the male recovers and begins to defend the territory again, the chick is in great shape. At six weeks, it has already survived the most difficult early phase of chick-rearing. The veteran female is an attentive mother; perhaps her care can keep the chick healthy in the meantime. And in the sad event that the male does not recover, the female’s efforts might be enough to keep the chick alive and growing even in the presence of a new male. After all, it has been done before. 

In any event, I think I have made my point. Biparental care is almost mandatory in common loons. While a human dad or mom can usually call upon a support network of friends and relatives to help feed and protect their child, a male or female loon that loses its mate during chick-rearing is very much alone. 

The prospect that someone would feed a loon seems outrageous on three counts. First, how could a person get close enough to a loon to offer it food? Second, how many of us have small live fish in our pockets to offer? Third, we are talking about a loon, for Pete’s sake! Who would treat such a magnificent bird like a pond duck?

On second thought, I get it. People love loons. They wish to see them up close and to help them in any way they can. On its face, feeding a loon seems like a positive act. By offering fish to a loon, folks must think that they are doing their part to conserve this iconic species. At least, that is my most charitable take on the feeding of loons.

As it turns out, many loons readily accept food from humans. In fact, some loons abruptly change from being fiercely independent animals that are contemptuous of humans to shockingly needy creatures that have dropped all pretense of wildness and live only for their next handout. Linda’s photo shows a typical scenario. Here, the female waits expectantly near a human on shore. Though this human clearly has no intention of offering food, the female is so thoroughly trained to take food from humans that she does not distinguish between humans with food and those without.

Linda’s photo also highlights the particular danger that feedings can pose if they involve loon parents. If a chick’s parent is taking food from humans, the chick itself will observe this behavior and is likely to imitate it. At a time in its life when a young loon must become an efficient forager, build its flight muscles, and survive its southward migration in November, a dependency on humans is most unhelpful.

It is easy to tell if a loon is being fed by people. The video below shows such a loon. As soon as I came within view, this bird made a beeline for my canoe, and it stayed with me for several minutes. Each time I happened to move my arms rapidly, it became alert, expecting that I was about to toss a fish for it to catch.

What’s the harm, you might ask? People who feed fish to loons are providing more food to them and are possibly helping them to survive. As a scientist, I must admit that measuring any impact of human feeding of loons is difficult, and we must accept that human-provided food could help loons in the short term. But consider this: a fed loon is a loon that routinely approaches humans closely. While most of us love loons and would not dream of hurting them, not all humans feel this way. A small number of people might harm a loon that approaches closely enough to accept a fish from them. More important, loons that stay close to humans and expect them to throw food are more likely than other loons to chase fishing lures or live bait and get hooked.

So…..please, folks, if you see someone offering food to a loon, have the strength to approach them and explain why we must avoid this harmful practice. If necessary, get your lake association involved or report them to the local wildlife agency. If all else fails, I am happy to do what I can to contact the offending party and ask them to stop. I find that most people who feed loons are only trying to help them and have simply not stopped to consider the long-term harm they are causing.

As living animals, we often face the task of sorting out meaningful patterns from the vast ocean of natural occurrences we encounter each day. Since we are human and reside in a protective bubble, this task is not as vital for us as for squirrels or deer or loons, of course. If we detect what we think is a natural pattern, act on it, and are wrong, we are unlikely to face lethal consequences. Suppose, for example, that you notice that fewer people do their grocery shopping at 3pm and change your shopping schedule to mid-afternoon so that you can avoid the rush. If you are mistaken, it will cost you time, but probably not your life. In contrast, a squirrel that concludes, based on limited experience, that predators are scarce from 3 to 4pm and decides to begin using that daily period for foraging might pay a dear price if she is wrong.

Despite the low stakes we face, humans have an irresistible and very rational inclination to take note of and try to discern meaning from natural events, especially when those events occur in quick succession. So it was the last few days with loons, bald eagles, a great blue heron, and me. The first incident happened on Squash Lake yesterday. I was watching a loon pair swimming along peacefully with their three-week-old chick. As a great blue heron passed harmlessly over the trio, the chick panicked and dove. Neither parent showed any other behavior in response to either heron or chick; they merely issued reassuring hoots when their youngster surfaced several seconds later, as if to say, “That’s okay; we are all young once!”

The Squash chick’s peculiar response to the heron flying overhead was a beautifully diagnostic act. Since all adult loons know their predators precisely and only flee or give alarm calls to those that are dangerous, I could instantly see from the Squash chick’s behavior that loons must learn their predators. To an animal behaviorist, this is not big news, I am afraid. While some fearfulness towards predators is innate (not learned), many — perhaps most — birds must learn which of the other species of animals they encounter in nature are truly dangerous. Thus, young birds commonly depend upon their parents to teach them.

Though I had witnessed a few other cases of loon chicks responding inappropriately to harmless animals in their vicinity, the striking confirmation yesterday on Squash that loon chicks are clueless when it comes to telling friend from foe was still firmly in my mind when I ventured to Hilts Lake today. There, the loons had to deal with the unpleasant presence of an adult bald eagle and its recent fledgling, which flew incessantly from one side of the lake to the other during my hourlong visit. We try to record every vocalization that the loons make during our routine visits; needless to say, I quickly began to curse the eagles almost as loudly as the loons were for the writer’s cramp they were causing me. I documented about 60 wails by the loon pair during my visit.

Now eagles are dangerous to loons, as I have emphasized recently. It is altogether appropriate that loons should call to eagles as a way of alerting other loons — and the eagles themselves — that their presence has been noted. But 60 wails is a lot of wails — far more than a pair of adult loons would normally produce, even when eagles made themselves so obvious as the parent and fledgling did today on Hilts. Why would a loon pair wail 60 times when 15 or 20 calls would have been ample to alert the eagles that an attack was likely to be fruitless?

Having seen the Squash chick’s response to the heron just a day before the Hilts pair’s overzealous calling to the eagles allowed me to put two and two together into a hypothesis. Part of the reason why loon pairs with chicks are so vocal when dangerous animals are nearby, I now presume, is that they are not merely protecting their chicks from those dangerous animals. They are also pointing out those animals to the chicks so that they will learn what predators are to be feared and respond appropriately once they are on their own.

 

 

 

Today brought more bad news. As I reviewed yesterday’s lake visits, I saw that Bear and Woodcock had been whittled down from two chicks to one. I objected briefly. “Brian”, I asked, “are you sure Woodcock has lost its second chick?” He was certain.

In the old days (the 90s and early 00s), about half of all loon broods in Oneida County had two chicks, like the 9-day-olds in Linda’s photo. I recall that we used this as a rule of thumb, when gauging how many chicks we would eventually capture and mark. Okay, we thought, half of all broods will have two chicks, and half will have one, so multiply the number of broods by 1.5 to get the total number of chicks. But it has been some years since half of all broods contained two chicks. In fact, we have to go back to 2005 to find a year of parity between one- and two-chick broods. Since then, 68.5% of all broods have been singletons. From 2017 to 2019, 78% of all families had only one chick in them.

This year will only strengthen that trend. After loss of one of two chicks on Woodcock and Bear, 28 of 36 focal pairs with chicks this year (78%) are caring for only one. By the way, chick loss is not just the whittling down of two chick broods to singletons. Indeed, eight of our focal pairs that hatched one or two chicks initially are now without chicks. So the massive increase in chick mortality that began during the past decade or so has wiped out entire broods as well as cutting many down by half. Since the trend of increased chick mortality long ago reached statistical significance, I have begun to fixate on it. What is killing loon chicks?

We cannot blame my favorite scapegoat, black flies, for chick loss. True, the flies had a devastating impact on nesting behavior in May and have reduced breeding more than any other single factor this year. Poor overall loon breeding success in the past five years can also be laid at least partly the tiny feet of Simulium annulus. That is, the flies suppress overall breeding success by wiping out many early nests. But it is late July now. The flies are a distant memory, and chicks are still dying.

Naturally, we look at what has changed in loons’ habitat during the period when chick mortality has been increasing. There are myriad possibilities. (1) Bald eagles are undoubtedly the most despised of all loon enemies. The eagle population has soared over the past four decades, and their impact on loon breeding success has been documented already. We have observed and have had reported numerous cases of loon chicks being taken by eagles — and loons seem to spend most of their waking hours on the lookout for eagles — so we must consider bald eagles a likely cause of increased chick loss. This year we have added eagle counts to our observation protocol. We will soon know whether eagles can be blamed for the increased mortality of chicks. (2) Declining small fish populations are another likely culprit. Small panfish, unfortunately, are not monitored as closely as are large gamefish, but the possibility that less food might be available now than before for loon chicks dovetails nicely with the fact that they are now 10% lighter than they were 25 years ago. We will explore the “decline in small fish” hypothesis in coming years. (3) There are far more humans on Oneida County lakes than there were 25 years ago. Indeed, a collaborator at Michigan State University has already documented that human population density is a strong correlate of adult mortality in our study area. It is quite plausible that human impacts — chiefly boat strikes, accidental hookings, and line entanglements — are the root cause of the decline in chick survival too. Our lakes vary enormously in the amount of human activity they support; this will make it straightforward to test the “human impacts” hypothesis.

Of course, multiple factors might have conspired to reduce the survival rate of loon chicks, including those just mentioned and others. If so, the task of detecting those that are most significant — and devising some means of mitigating them in an effort to restore loon breeding success to what it once was — will be daunting. Naturally, I am hoping that there is a single discrete cause. For example, if we learn that bald eagles are starting to have an unacceptably high impact on loon chick mortality, we would simply have to…….. well….okay…… Let’s hope eagles are not the cause!

When Annie reported a chick on Maud three days ago, I felt only fleeting elation. Yes, the loons in Oneida County are struggling again this year, so any chick seen on any lake is cause for celebration. On the other hand, this chick was on Maud.

To say that Maud Lake has a checkered past with respect to loon breeding is to lean too far towards the positive. As Annie’s photo shows, Maud is a beautiful little lake with lots of nesting habitat — but the lake also has a lot to prove. Over the 27 years that we have covered it, no lake in our study area has consistently looked so promising for breeding as Maud and produced so little.

The lake seemed productive in the 1990s, when we first began to cover it. According to lake residents, the pair fledged two chicks in 1991. After a few off years — at the time, we viewed the chick lost at two weeks in 1994 as bad luck —  the lake seemed to recover in 1995, as the pair raised another chick to fledging age. In the quarter century since then, however, Maud has been the lake where young, hopeful breeders — and older, established ones — go to flounder. No chick has been raised to five weeks of age since 1995, and a good many have been lost before that age. Between 2007 and 2009, the pair had an especially bad run; they hatched and lost 4 chicks before 3 and half weeks of age during that stretch. Almost for our own morale, we have covered Maud only spottily since then — and never seen a pair raise a chick to adulthood. 

If it were a mere matter of lack of nesting habitat, the story of Maud would not be so gut-wrenching. After all, 10 to 20% of our study lakes have little or no natural nesting habitat; others have only one island, patch of marsh, or bog that a respectable adult loon would consider for nesting. There is no shame in a lake lacking good places for a loon nest. But Maud has an abundance of nestable habitat. Indeed, virtually the entire 3.8 km of shoreline is either bog or marsh. Add to this bounty of nesting options two islands far enough from shore to make raccoons reconsider the swim and you have what appears to be a nesting paradise for loons. And loons — many different loons — have been lured to nest on Maud over the years. 

It is hard to say what is wrong with Maud. Frequent loss of young chicks suggests that food might be limited, predators abundant, or both. The tragedy of the lake, in my view,  is that adult loons that might be trying to breed elsewhere are lured to Maud to waste a year possibly hatching — but never rearing offspring. Maud is sort of a microcosm of what has happened across the study area since 1993 — smaller-than-normal chicks, high chick mortality — and few fledglings. Except that Maud, by not producing a single chick in 25 years, has taken the county-wide affliction to an extreme. 

Annie, like all of my observers this year, was new to loon research this year. She was happy to spend a day “roving” to lakes where no marked loon pair was known to be established and where chick production was thought to be unlikely. She was justifiably thrilled to turn up a pair with a small chick. I only wish she had not found it on Maud. 

I had a hint that the territory was in flux on my May 29th visit. Though it was late morning, there was a persistent intruder on Towanda. Intruders sometimes visit in late morning, and do not always depart quickly, but I filed this observation away as a worrisome sign that the Towanda pair might not be fully in control of their territory. I relaxed a bit when, on my June 15th visit, the pair had deposited two eggs at a safe location in the southeastern bay. Whatever had happened early in the year, I thought, the pair seemed to have put it behind them. Pairs do not reproduce in the midst of territorial instability.

Yet the breeding female and two intruding adults were locked into an intense round of circle-dancing and excited diving at the northern end of the lake on June 24th, when I had again drawn Towanda on my circuit list. Oblivious to that unease, the male incubated the eggs quietly at the southern end. Well, I reasoned, the female is in a tussle, but the male is far away and unaware of the action. Once he takes his next turn off the eggs, perhaps he will use his size, aggressiveness, and voice to drive off any residual intruders. On Martha’s visit five days later, calm indeed seemed to have descended on the lake; the male foraged casually while the female sat on the eggs. Likewise Annie reported nothing unusual on July 6th: the male was back on the nest, and the female foraged and swam on the surface nearby. Moreover, these last two visits occurred shortly after dawn, when intrusions peak. The absence of intruders on these two early-morning visits seemed a good indication that the pair was firmly in control.

The last two uneventful visits to Towanda had prepared us poorly for what Allison encountered today. From the look of the nest (see Allison’s photo), all seemed well. Clearly both eggs hatched right on schedule. But no chick was with the loon pair, and the male’s behavior was odd. He seemed exhausted and barely budged when the wind carried Allison’s canoe to within a few meters of his resting spot. As she sensed something amiss and worked hard to nail the male’s bands, she came to an important conclusion: this was not the right male. Somehow the territorial male, banded 12 years before, had been replaced by a new, younger bird just at about the time that new chicks had disappeared.

We can infer what happened on Towanda this past few days, because we have seen it many times before. In the wake of a successful hatch, the long-term male breeder had been evicted by a young whipper-snapper, and the whipper-snapper was this male who seemed determined to rest and recover. The young male had likely killed the chicks, as male lions do when they take over a pride that is raising the offspring of other males, and as we have seen before in loons. His bands revealed that the male was a seven-year-old, hatched and reared on Arrowhead Lake in Woodruff, just a few miles south of Towanda. Allison noticed something else strange; the young male was unwilling or unable to open his right eye. Exhaustion and damage to the head or neck of a loon almost always indicate a prolonged and recent territorial battle. We are left to wonder: if the winner of the contest is in this kind of shape, what does the loser look like?

This contest fits the profile of terminal investment by male loons. That is, the original 17+ year-old male resident might well have poured all of his energy into holding his territory — possibly dying the in the process — especially since he had two chicks to rear that would have contributed greatly to his lifetime reproductive fitness. But the day comes for most breeders — male or female — when a fit, determined youngster intrudes that is able to overwhelm you in a territorial battle. According to our measurements of males a different ages, seven-year-old males have reached peak condition and offer a stiff challenge to older males — even determined ones. At least the old fellow made the youngster work for it!

It is usually no fun to be wrong, but maybe this is an exception. In my blog post yesterday, I surmised that the sudden appearance in flight of the male from Little Bearskin meant that he and his mate had failed in their second nesting attempt. This seemed a safe presumption; I knew from many years of experience that males do not often leave females alone with small chicks. Yet I was mistaken. A lake resident (thanks, Nancy!) corrected me by pointing out that at least one chick had hatched on Little Bearskin this year, and Martha found two chicks on the lake during her early-morning visit today.

As we have explained in an earlier publication, there are three reasons why males tend not to leave their breeding lakes when their chicks are in their first two weeks of life. First, females cannot yodel, and therefore they are unable to discourage intruders from landing in the lake and approaching chicks by means of this aggressive vocal signal. Second, by virtue of their greater size, males are better equipped to intimidate and drive away intruders that do approach chicks. Third, having two parents guarding chicks when they are small permits breeding pairs to cover two bases — they can send one parent out to engage intruders and leave the other to protect the chicks, in case an intruder should come close.

In fact, years ago on Langley Lake we witnessed the danger that parents face if one of them ventures off territory when their chicks are small. In this case, two intruders landed when the male was off the lake, forcing the female to choose between: 1) staying beside its week-old chick, and 2) leaving its chick to interact with the intruders. She chose the latter course, but that strategy backfired when the intruders dove and split up. At this most inopportune moment, the chick happened to give an alarm call that one of the intruders heard. The intruder quickly found the calling chick and, with no parent nearby to intervene, killed the chick in a matter of seconds.

With that horrid incident seared into my brain (and a good deal of quantitative data on chick attendance to back it up), I was fairly confident that the appearance of a breeding male on a lake not his own meant that he had failed in his breeding attempt at home. In fact, I am still scratching my head over the Little Bearskin male’s decision to leave his mate, his two helpless chicks, and his home lake with its abundant food supply, in order to visit a neighboring lake that held nothing but failed and displaced conspecifics. I guess I will have to continue my research for a few more years to make sense of that odd bit of behavior.

At first glance, Bearskin Lake does not strike one as unique. It is rather round in shape, and, at 163 hectares, is much larger than our average study lake. But we cover many lakes rounder than Bearskin and several — including Two Sisters, Clear, and Minocqua — that are much larger. Likewise, Bearskin falls into the middle of the pack in terms of average and maximum depth. True, the lake bottom fairly seethes with rusty crayfish, but that nasty invasive species is also abundant in Oneida, Crescent, and Lower Kaubashine. What sets Bearskin Lake apart is not its shape, size, or biology, but the sort of loons that visit and live on it. 

I was reminded of the unusual status of Bearskin among loon lakes two days ago when I made our first visit of the year there. I was not greeted by the adorable sight of a loon parent capturing tiny minnows and gently leaning downwards to present them gingerly to its 3-day-old chick, as one might see on Silver, Hodstradt, or Bear. Nor did I encounter a male and female that had tried and failed to hatch chicks and were looking forward to next year, when they could renew their breeding efforts. Instead, I observed a nervous loon that immediately raised its head high upon surfacing to scan for a territorial pair that might take exception to its visit. (Linda’s picture above shows the alert posture characteristic of anxious loons.) This bird, “green over silver, white-blue over orange”, was a former breeding female on Seventeen Lake in Hazelhurst that we had seen only once since 2012. We have no idea what this loon has been doing since we last saw it, but its presence on Bearskin and without a mate suggests that it has been marking time and has not reacquired a breeding position. 

Three hundred meters southwest of the displaced Seventeen female was another forager that was far more relaxed on the lake. Like the first loon, though, she was alone. To my surprise, this bird — “silver only, white over yellow” — was the former breeding female from West Horsehead Lake. One of the most prolific breeders ever in our study area, this female has reared 19 chicks since her initial capture in 1996 and, at 29+ years, is our second oldest bird. Her residence on Bearskin solved the puzzle of her disappearance from West Horsehead, which Al Schwoegler (a West Horsehead resident) and I had been mourning all spring long. “Silver only, white over yellow” had finally met a young opponent this spring willing to fight harder than her for the territory. She had thus accepted defeat, left West Horsehead, and taken refuge on the lake where evicted adults have always gone — Bearskin Lake. 

I continued my paddle south from the boat landing, feeling that my effort to visit Bearskin had already been repaid. A lone loon foraging just west off the huge island diverted me briefly; I was deflated to find this bird unbanded. As I veered southeast, following the arc of the island, I scanned eastwards and spotted an apparent pair synch diving (i.e. diving and surfacing together repeatedly). These two loons seemed to know me and were no trouble to identify. “Red-stripe over copper, silver over orange” was a vaguely familiar band combination, but I knew his mate, “red-stripe over silver, red over white”, very well indeed. Initially banded on 2001, this female has raised 10 young on Little Bearskin Lake and on Currie, where she had settled in 2015 after her eviction from Little Bearskin. The male with her, I now realized, was her new mate from Currie. 

As pleased as I was to encounter the tame pair from Currie, their presence on Bearskin was very bad news. They had hatched two chicks on about June 25th, and had lost one of those by the time Lyn observed them on July 2nd. Since parents attend and protect young chicks assiduously and since we have never observed both pair members to leave chicks unattended until they reach four weeks, the Currie pair’s presence on Bearskin signaled that they had lost the second chick not long after the first and were done breeding for the year. “What are you guys doing here?” I said with a mixture of sadness and disapproval. Bearskin is not a lake where loons go to celebrate their achievements. 

My visit to Bearskin ended with an oddity. As I was lamenting the Currie pair’s disappointment, they wheeled around and began tooting to signal the arrival of a flying intruder. The intruder obliged me by arcing towards the Currie pair and skittering to a landing only 50 meters west. The morning sunlight allowed me to read most of its “red-stripe over blue, white over silver” band combination before it hit the water. This male, I knew, was the current breeder from Little Bearskin. His arrival here was more bad news, because males rarely leave their territories during a breeding attempt. “Red-stripe over blue” circled tensely with the pair and then became aggressive, sending both Currie birds fleeing in different directions as he stalked them underwater. Maybe he was stung by his own breeding disappointment. A later check of the database showed that he and his mate had been sitting for at least 32 days on four eggs on Little Bearskin without a hatch. We can reasonably surmise that the pair abandoned a first clutch of two eggs in early or mid May, reused that nest by laying two more eggs with the abandoned ones still present, and now have failed in a second attempt — either because of black flies again or perhaps infertility of the eggs. So this has been a year of frustration on Little Bearskin, as well. 

I found two more unmarked loons along the west shore of Bearskin on my visit and no hint of a resident pair or breeding activity. In fact, most pairings on Bearskin are fleeting, and nests are scarce. The last successful breeding on Bearskin occurred in 1997, when a pair fledged two healthy, crayfish-loving chicks, repeating their feat from the year before. Since then there has been a smattering of breeding attempts, but none — to our knowledge — has produced a hatch. Moreover, no pair has ever formed a breeding partnership that lasted more than three years on Bearskin. Loons seem to sense something about the lake that humans do not. Bearskin is not a lake where you go to raise a family; it is a lake where you go when you have nowhere else to go. 

In many ways, I was dreading the call. After three weeks of frantic training and two more of new team members beginning to find their way around the study area and become fully comfortable with our techniques, we were finally in a groove. But it was an early morning groove — the kind where you get up at four, hit your first lake at five, and finish eight hours later, dragging yourself home bleary-eyed, overheated, and definitely not stoked about entering your day’s observations in the database.

When Linda called to ask for my help in capturing a loon that was thoroughly entangled in monofilament line, I felt strongly that I should go. The loon was certain to die without our help. Even if it continued to elude the constant harassment and attacks of the territorial pair, the bird would suffer damage to its wing muscles over time. Furthermore, it was bound to have serious injuries that were not evident from the grainy photo we had seen. But Linda’s plan was to try to net the bird at night. I had not seen a sunset in six weeks!

“Okay, I’ll be there in 45 minutes”, I told her. “Will I fall asleep at the wheel?”, I wondered. I cranked up Coldplay’s Viva La Vida and sang along too loudly as I drove north to Mercer Lake.

Feeling only slightly gauzy, I reached the landing and set out with Linda and Kevin on the lake’s northwest end. Luckily they had done the heavy lifting by finding the bird and tracking it as darkness fell. The entangled individual sat almost motionless where the lake meets a dense marsh.

Had I been a bit more on the ball, we would have caught the bird in a flash, as it did not start to dive until our boat was within a meter or two. But I missed….twice. “Not used to the boat….net is awfully heavy and shallow….the electric motor is in my way”, I grumbled, half to myself. Linda and Kevin were patient, though, and the bird fortunately returned to the fringe of the marsh, following my misses. Given a third chance, I was finally able to net the impacted loon, and we proceeded to shore.

An inspection on shore revealed that the monofilament was wound tightly around its tail and wing and had damaged those feathers badly. A later x-ray showed a hook buried deeply in the loon’s chest, which we had known nothing about.

IMG_7064 3

Despite its injuries, the prognosis seems pretty good for this bird. First of all, it is still physically strong, as we learned during capture. It is now being cared for at Raptor Education Group and will be held another day or so until the hook can be removed and its feathers recover their normal shape. I have banded it so that we can track it after release and monitor its recovery. 

Coldplay got me home safely at about midnight. My body was not sure what tricks I was playing on it, but I eventually fell asleep and slept in — until 6:30. Ughh, I thought. I have lost my early-morning groove. But I smiled to think that I had helped give a doomed loon a new lease on life.