Researchers who venture close to a loon nest abandoned to flies get a small taste of the agony these insects inflict. As if moved by a sweeping dipteran consensus, a cloud of flies buzzing about a nest — drawn by warmth, movement, and carbon dioxide— suddenly shifts its attention to approaching humans. The flies alight on your head and neck, crawl underneath your jacket, and fly errantly into your nose, ears, and mouth. The experience is unpleasant and alarming. It is difficult not to scream.
Yet the tactile and chemical cues humans produce are not satisfying to black flies. They crawl and buzz and annoy. But they do not bite us. So we cannot say that we truly know how loons feel when they are besieged by black flies — when the mouthparts of hundreds of females are inserted into their head and neck at once and departing flies are quickly replaced by new ones that have been waiting their turn to feed. And when it lasts for hours. That helpless miserable sensation is one that humans can only imagine.
Despite the misery they cause, black flies have one great virtue. They plague incubating loons for only a few short weeks.
In the past seven to ten days, black fly numbers at loon nests have dropped substantially. You do not need me to tell you this; the loons have weighed in. Two weeks ago our marked loons in Minnesota and Wisconsin rested and foraged near their nests, gazed longingly at their nests, circled around their nests, and — on a few occasions when we ventured too close — defended their nests from us. This past week has been different; loons are ON their nests. Thus, after a stuttering start, the breeding season has begun.
The saying “success breeds success” was not coined with loons in mind. But we humans know from experience that an initial success can increase the likelihood of a second one. Indeed, I relearn the value of accumulated experience each spring during the period when I train field observers. With no background in the technique, new observers are utterly astounded when we locate the first nest of the year. After five more nest discoveries, though, they begin to develop a “search image” for nests. It is a thrill to see them learn quickly over a period of a few days to the point where they begin to point out loon nests to me!
Loons are not complete strangers to the benefits of learning. Males often place nests in poor locations when they first attempt to nest on new territories. After a bit of blundering about and some poor decisions, males typically find a nesting spot that results in a successful hatch. Afterwards, they reuse that good spot again and again, enjoying much greater success than during their first attempts. Thus, nesting success following an initial period of failure leads to further nesting success.
The mixed blessing brought about by successful chick-rearing is nowhere more obvious than on the Pelican Lake-Mousseau Bay territory in the Minnesota Study Area. Online observers watching via the live nest cam were treated to a lengthy battle between two adult loons a few days ago. While the battle was shocking in its brutality, it was not surprising. We have long known that the successful rearing of chicks leads to a surge in interest in the territory and, hence, the likelihood of territory loss by one or both breeders. After raising two strapping chicks last summer, the male and female of Mousseau Bay must have braced themselves for a litany of territorial intruders and challenges. Indeed, the banded 2022 male apparently lost his position this spring; last year’s marked female is now paired with an unmarked male.
And yet there is hope. Yesterday, the old female laid an egg. She and her new mate both seem anxious to sit on it. If they can weather the blitz of black flies currently dogging their incubation efforts, they stand a good chance of repeating last year’s success.
Linda began to worry on April 18th when “Lucy” — the female from Muskellunge Lake whom we banded last year — showed up in a patch of open water with two other loons from the neighborhood. Male loons usually arrive a few days before females. Clune, the most famous loon in our study area, resident on Muskellunge since 2008, and Lucy’s mate, should have been back. Linda’s careful records show that Clune has appeared on Muskellunge before his mate in every year during the past 10 years except 2020, when his mate showed up two days before him.
It’s funny how, even as a scientist, I became attached to Clune. I remember encountering him back on Manson Lake in 1998. As his parents fished together in one cove near the boat landing, 4-week-old Clune and his sister dove together in a nearby cove. I tried to stay in contact with adults and chicks without approaching either pair too closely, but the chicks kept surfacing near my canoe and on the opposite side from their parents. On each such occasion, I paddled rapidly away and towards the lake’s center to restore the parent-offspring sightline. But neither parents nor chicks panicked, as I did, when my canoe split them. My canoe and I inspired the same degree of alarm as boulders, piers, and patches of vegetation.
Clune was precocious. He first appeared back in the study area as a two-year-old intruder on Hancock Lake. He wandered around for the next few years, as nonterritorial adults do. In 2003, he settled on Deer Lake, only 3 miles from Manson, where he had been raised. He and his mate produced chicks in 2003, 2004, and 2005 on Deer. Two of his sons from this period have followed in his illustrious webbed footsteps: one is the long-time breeder on tiny Virgin Lake; the other has cranked out offspring since 2014 as the territorial male on Squash Lake-Southeast.
Although we did not know it at the time, Clune’s breeding success on Deer was merely a prelude. Indeed, Clune and his second mate hit a slump on Deer from 2006 to 2008, failing to hatch a single egg. And so, as loons often do in the prime of life, Clune turned his attention to nearby alternatives. Muskellunge Lake was a chick-producer during the three years of Clune’s slump. Thus, in mid-June of 2008, Clune intruded into Muskellunge, battled the male territory owner, drove him off the lake, and settled on Muskellunge with the resident female.
Yet Clune seemed ambivalent about leaving Deer, where he had produced several chicks, and occupying his valuable new territory on Muskellunge. He faced an embarrassment of riches, it seemed. For three years, Clune and his mate bounced between Deer and Muskellunge. And Clune’s breeding slump stretched to five years.
At long last in 2011, Clune and a new female (“Honey”, as Linda came to call her) reared two chicks on Muskellunge. It was no fluke. The chicks of 2011 began one of the most impressive runs of breeding success we have ever seen in northern Wisconsin. Between 2011 and 2021, Clune and Honey hatched chicks in every single year and raised 13 chicks to adulthood. (Clune added a 14th chick in 2022 with a new mate, Lucy.)
What set Clune and Honey apart from other pairs was their dogged determination as incubators. 2011, 2014, 2017, 2019, and 2020 were years during which 27% to 90% of all loon pairs in northern Wisconsin abandoned their May nests owing to severe black fly infestations. Clune and Honey sat tight throughout these dreadful years, tolerating hours of motionless incubation while flies sucked their blood at will. They did not abandon a single nest. Consider this feat for a moment. Both pair members must be committed to warm the eggs for several hours at a stretch in order for a nesting attempt to succeed. While loon pairs throughout the study area abandoned their nests and hatched few chicks for a decade, Clune and Honey thrived.
Despite his sterling breeding record, it is Clune’s affability that I will miss the most. He seemed to sense that humans in canoes and kayaks meant him no harm. Perhaps he even got to know Linda and me, since he had seen us so often throughout his life. It certainly seemed so at night when he hardly budged as we gently threw a net beneath him each year, lifted him out of the water, weighed him, and replaced his worn bands.
There is a new male on Muskellunge this year. (See Linda’s featured photo of him yodeling, above.) He is “Yellow over Copper, Red-stripe over Silver”, a 12-year-old hatched on Prairie Lake who has lived and attempted to breed on nearby Halfmoon and Clear Lakes for the past three years. Like all males on new territories, he will probably struggle on Muskellunge to find a nest site where he and his new mate can hatch eggs. Maybe Yellow over Copper will beat the odds, take advantage of the plentiful breeding habitat on the lake, and raise a chick or two in his first year. I am keeping my fingers crossed for him. He is a fairly tame loon and a vigorous defender of his new territory. I knew his parents for many years on Prairie and have a good feeling about him. But he is not Clune.
After losing our primary source of funding for Minnesota, we are facing a money crunch. The news came rather suddenly. It has left me pondering this sea change in our circumstances and wondering where it leaves us.
It is ironic to lose our funding at this particular moment. After intensive field efforts in 2021 and 2022, the Chapman/Loon Project database now contains two full years of field data from Minnesota. We have made scores of friends and lake contacts — mostly through the tireless efforts of students on the LP field team in Minnesota. Having marked one or both adults on 57 of 105 territories we cover in and around Crosslake, we are more than halfway to our goal of building out the Minnesota Study Area. Completion of our marking efforts in 2023 and 2024 would bring Minnesota up to par with our long-term study population in Wisconsin. Most important, we have roughly half of the necessary data to construct the first-ever true population model in the state using marked loons. So it is only a slight exaggeration to say that we have accomplished in two years in Minnesota what it took us 10 to 15 years to achieve in Wisconsin.
In short, our 2021 and 2022 field teams in Minnesota have built a great LP database that has all of the promise we thought it would. I would be remiss if I did not thank Kevin and the USGS loon capture team that contributed mightily to our banding efforts in 2022. A bunch of other folks helped out with capture and tracking of the Minnesota population in 2021 and 2022, including Mike and Natasha of the NLC, Richard and Terri, Dawn and Keith, Mary, and Kris. Jon, Melanie, and Mike from Boyd Lodge housed the field team during our work. Mike and John loaned us their boats. (Apologies if I have forgotten someone.)
Naturally, now that we have established a robust study population from which we will soon be able to extract reliable population data, I am acutely concerned about the sudden funding shortfall. But should you share my concern? If you live in Wisconsin or Maine or Ontario, why should you care about Minnesota loons? After all, we have excellent long-term data on the northern Wisconsin loon population that provides a sensitive gauge of the population trend in one part of the Upper Midwest. Why can’t we generalize the results from Wisconsin to Minnesota? In other words, if the Wisconsin loon population is thriving or tanking, isn’t it safe to presume that the Minnesota population is doing the same?
Minnesota and Wisconsin loon populations certainly seem similar. The states share a lengthy border across which loons fly freely. We have learned from recoveries of our banded birds in other seasons that the migration and wintering grounds of Wisconsin and Minnesota loons overlap almost completely. Adult loons in Wisconsin and Minnesota are of very similar size — and both populations contain adults much smaller than the loons of New England. Loons consume the same species of fish, are plagued by the same species of black fly, and must dive, duck, and dodge boats and fishing lures in both states. Importantly, lead fishing tackle — banned in New England — kills many adults and chicks in Wisconsin and Minnesota both. And, of course, loons are also loved and fiercely protected by most lake residents and visitors in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Doesn’t all of this mean that the population trend we detect in Wisconsin loons is likely to hold also in Minnesota?
Perhaps. But there are also differences. In general, loons appear to be packed more densely in Minnesota than in Wisconsin. Weather patterns, while broadly overlapping, differ between the states. Minnesota loons are more northerly, on average, than loons in Wisconsin. To presume that the two states’ loon populations fluctuate in harmony is risky. And, of course, if the Minnesota loon population echoes the Wisconsin loon population, our Minnesota measurements are even more important to make. Remember, the northern Wisconsin loon population is in serious decline. Minnesota loons could be declining in concert with Wisconsin loons, could be stable, or could be declining more rapidly than Wisconsin’s loons. Without running the numbers, we just don’t know.
The condition of Minnesota loons matters for another reason. Since loons in the Upper Midwest experience many of the same hazards as loons across the breeding range (e.g. water clarity, black flies, human angling, lead toxicity, and recreational pressure), our detailed and rigorous observations in Wisconsin and Minnesota have implications far beyond the Upper Midwest. By studying two populations 200 miles apart, we can compare factors that impinge on loons across populations. Any common patterns that we see across the two study populations are likely to indicate factors of broad impact — factors probably important in New Hampshire, Quebec, and Montana.
My discussion of the Minnesota loon population exposes a second irony. Minnesota provides a summer home for more loons — by a 3 to 1 margin — than any state in the lower 48, and Minnesotans love their state bird. Yet Minnesota arguably knows less about its loons than any other state in the contiguous U.S. (As I pointed out some months ago, what data we do have on Minnesota loons create cause for concern.) The LP database in Minnesota — once we finish building it and can build a model to learn about population dynamics — would permit us to remedy this unfortunate irony regarding Minnesota’s loons. Our work would alert us to any decline in the state, and our accompanying study of causes of reproductive failure could help us design and put in place a conservation plan that (with luck) could reverse any decline. Yet with this crucial milestone in sight, we suddenly lack the funding we need to reach it.
In truth, we have always faced challenges in Minnesota. Our most important lake there is Whitefish, which contains about a third of our territories, and where we are sometimes driven off of the lake by brutal winds and whitecaps. Even our “small lakes” in Minnesota are, on average, 50% larger than those in Wisconsin, which forces us to spend longer periods finding study animals by canoe. When compared with Wisconsin, everything is expensive around Crosslake and often in short supply — that goes for lodging, storage space, equipment, and most everything else. And tacking a Minnesota Study Area onto the Wisconsin Study Area has doubled my annual workload. Despite my determined efforts, I have not spent enough time in Minnesota nor have I been able to adequately support the field team there. Considering the 1,329 obstacles we confront in Minnesota — to which we can now add lack of funding — maybe we should throw up our hands and throw in the towel.
But then, loons could say the same. Territorial pairs face enormous obstacles each summer in trying to raise chicks. They must find safe nesting sites, defend them from predators, and incubate their eggs for four long weeks regardless of weather conditions. Hatching, which would appear worthy of a celebration, is, in reality, not even a halfway point for the pair. Instead, hatching merely introduces a new suite of hazards for parents, including new predators, the threat of infanticide by intruding loons, and the difficulty of finding enough food for their chicks — especially if they are on a small lake and it has been a rainy summer. And, of course, both parents are in constant danger of being evicted from their territory by young upstart loons that are always on the prowl for breeding territories. In short, the task of raising two healthy chicks, or even one, is incredibly daunting. If loons had the ability to ponder the vast array of obstacles to successful reproduction, they might never attempt it.
The desperate struggle of loons to raise young despite a host of challenges was illustrated vividly by the loon pair on the Little Pine-Dream Island territory this year. Little Pine is a pleasant, rather quiet lake on the Whitefish Chain. We marked the Dream Island pair in 2021, during which they raised a chick. Both pair members returned this year, so we knew they were veterans with a track record of chick production. But their experience in earlier years did not prepare them for the buzzsaw they encountered this past summer. When we found the Dream Island pair on May 27th, they were off the nest and spending a great deal of time under water. We quickly learned why. Black flies were tormenting them mercilessly. The relentless flies were present in huge numbers on the nest and on vegetation near the nest. They frolicked in great clouds in the air above the nest. And the pair members’ heads were blanketed by flies, each probing the skin for a spot to make an incision. Even constant diving by both male and female failed to dislodge these blood-sucking pests. During our visit, the male (pictured below in the water near the nest) made a pitiful attempt to mount the nest and resume incubation, but he could not bear to do so.
After surveying the nightmare scenario at Dream Island, I gave them a low probability of resuming their incubation duties in time to rescue the eggs and hatch their chicks. It did not seem possible that a male and female whose heads and necks were thickly encrusted with welts from hundreds upon hundreds of fly bites would see this nesting attempt through to hatching. But by some miracle, the pair hatched both eggs successfully three weeks later. I was flabbergasted. Despite 30 years spent watching nesting behavior of loons, this one successful attempt against all odds remains seared into my brain. It is impossible to know how many female black flies participated in the blood-letting of the Dream Island pair. But I suspect, like us, they had at least 1,329 reasons to quit.
I find myself drawing inspiration from the Dream Island pair. No one could have anticipated that they would hatch their eggs after facing such an unexpected and disheartening challenge. Yet offered the temptation of bowing to adversity, they stuck it out and triumphed.
Field ecologists are often told that they come to resemble their study animal. I am not dismayed by this comparison. In fact, if I can bring half as much determination and stick-to-it-iveness to my research program as the Dream Island pair bring to their nesting efforts, I will consider myself an unalloyed success.
This seems a good time for me to emulate the Dream Island loons and resist the temptation to give up the Minnesota work. The stakes are enormous. Minnesotans would be devastated to lose loons from the state or even from part of the state. And based on my work in neighboring Wisconsin, Minnesota loons are likely in trouble. Do I turn away from these good people — and a new set of loons with which I have begun to bond — when I meet some adversity?
So I am asking for your help. If we are able to raise $3,500, that will permit us to go to Crosslake and complete the late May census of the 105 or so loon territories that comprise our study area there. The census is a vital part of the year’s field effort, because sightings (or non-sightings) of adults we marked in 2021 and 2022 permit us to calculate the rate of return to the territory from the previous year, an indication of adult survival. If we are even more fortunate and receive $7,000 in donations for the 2023 Minnesota field effort, that will allow us to complete the all-important May census and also visit the territories again once or twice in July to determine rate of reproductive success. Reproductive success is a second important piece of demographic data that will help us refine the population model we build in two years. Finally, if by some miracle we are able to pull together $17,000 for Minnesota, that will permit us to do the census, measure reproductive success late in the year, and band enough new loons to bring our Minnesota Study Area up from two-thirds finished to fully marked. The 2023 banding effort would increase our sample of banded birds and strengthen the population assessment we will carry out in the near future.
If you have already donated to our study, thank you so much! If you have not yet contributed financially to our work and are now able to assist with our Minnesota field effort, we would appreciate it! As I have explained, your donation will be spent in an effort to learn about and conserve Minnesota loons. (If you wish to donate funds, but would like your donation to go to helping loons in our traditional Wisconsin population instead of the new Minnesota population, please specify that when you donate, and we will honor your request.)
Feel free to e-mail me at email@example.com if you have questions about our fundraising effort and how you can help. For example, if you can offer us housing in the Crosslake area for a week in May and/or for ten days to two weeks in late July, that would reduce our funding needs greatly and bring us closer to our goals.
Thanks for any help you can give us. I am anxious to complete the promising work that we began two years ago and will move heaven and earth to keep the Minnesota Study Area afloat. Things look grim at the moment, but I am hopeful that, like the Dream Island pair, I can weather adversity and emerge stronger on the far side of it.