The past month and a half have been a roller coaster ride, though mostly downwards. Six weeks ago I learned that major funding for my field work in Minnesota had dried up. I cursed my luck. I scratched my head. A thousand “what ifs” passed through my brain.
But looking back was pointless. In time, my mind began to turn to one cheerful and unassailable fact. Loon Project field teams in 2021 and 2022 had given their all to expand our database into a new state where, initially, we knew almost no one. As we began to meet the warm, supportive, loon-loving folks of Minnesota, we gained momentum. The National Loon Center provided tons of support, financial and logistical. New friends shared boats, gave us access to private lakes, towed our capture boat from lake to lake in the middle of the night, or simply drove us around in their own boats during capture to help us find and mark breeding loon pairs. Kevin Kenow and his USGS colleagues spent six long nights in 2022 capturing loons to swell our study population. When the dust settled in early August of last year, we were well over halfway to our goal of establishing a Minnesota Study Area on par with our traditional study area in Wisconsin.
That we have not been diverted from that path is a tribute to our great pool of friends and supporters in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and across the U.S. One day a few weeks ago was a first turning point. An anonymous friend from Wisconsin pledged $7,000 “to support the Minnesota part of the Loon Project”. I was touched that someone in Wisconsin trusted me with this gift, and moreover, dedicated it not to the loons of their own state but to those of an adjacent one. *
Just yesterday, another group of donors from Minnesota helped us reach another turning point. Roger and Phyllis Sherman, Don Salisbury, and Gwen Myers have together contributed $21,000 to the Minnesota Loon Project to establish the Judith W. McIntyre Fund to support our work in the state.
It is a great honor to feel that I am building upon Dr. McIntyre’s seminal work on loons, which took place in Minnesota, Saskatchewan, and Upstate New York. Judy had a gift. She did robust, impactful science that taught us a great deal about loons. At the same time, she was able to convey her passion for loons and loon conservation in a charming, down-to-earth manner that reached the public. I have a dog-eared copy of her classic book, “The Common Loon: Spirit of Northern Lakes” on my shelf to which I often refer. When I think back to my interactions with Judy, though, what I remember most vividly is the warmth and humility with which she welcomed me to the fellowship of loon biologists back in the mid-1990s. She viewed the study of loons as a calling to which all could aspire — even the young whippersnapper that I then was.
The new Judith W. McIntyre Fund is a timely and exciting development. This gift adds to the dozens from other supporters of the Loon Project from Alaska to Colorado to Maine who have stepped up to donate during our time of greatest need. And I cannot forget other folks who have provided the Loon Project team with lodging in Wisconsin (especially Skip and Ruby, Mary, and Linda and Kevin) and Minnesota. Friends and supporters have truly kept the Loon Project afloat in recent years. Gifts earmarked for Minnesota have now brought us right back to where we were before the loss of funding six weeks ago. In other words, thanks to all of you, our goal of producing a robust population model for loons in north-central Minnesota is back on the horizon.
I know what you are thinking: another feel-good story of overcoming adversity that features loon/human parallels! Now that we are back in business in Minnesota, perhaps I will plague you less often with such tedious anecdotes. But things have been going pretty well lately. So I can’t make any promises.
* As I noted in an earlier post, research in our traditional Wisconsin Study Area will proceed as before. That is, we will continue to build the Minnesota Study Area without compromising our productive long-term study of loons in Wisconsin.
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.
An association between loons and water clarity seems reasonable. After all, loons are visual predators. Why would they spend time in water through which they cannot see?
Yet I learned in Wisconsin in the mid 1990s that loons do not strongly favor clear water. While many of my study lakes, like Alva and Two Sisters, are quite clear and produce chicks regularly, many others, such as Hancock and Oneida, are both turbid and productive. In short, loons in the Upper Midwest thrive and fledge chicks on lakes that vary between 3 and 20 feet of visibility. Indeed a scientific analysis showed that water clarity is not among the factors that dictates use of a lake by loons.
If you think about it, you can understand why a migratory species like the common loon does not overspecialize on water of a certain clarity. As we know from Kevin Kenow’s work, loons fly hundreds of miles across largely unknown terrain and then must land on a waterbody somewhere. If they are in desperate need of a meal at such times — as we might presume — they had better not be too finicky about the menu and the eating conditions. Flexibility must be especially important among juveniles migrating south for the first time, who are crossing terrain that is entirely unfamiliar to them and must find food nevertheless. And, of course, migration begins or ends in the Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic, where both diet and water clarity are entirely different from that during the summer months.
Just to be very plain here, I am saying that short-term water clarity (during the month of capture) increases loon masses because they probably see their food more easily, but some factor related to long-term clarity (how clear the water is on average, over many years) actually makes it harder for loons to put on mass. How do we make sense of this brain-twister?
We can only speculate about the long-term water-clarity-related factor that hinders loons’ foraging. However, there is a prime suspect. Human recreation is strongly correlated with lake water clarity. In other words, people like to spend time boating, fishing, and swimming in clear lakes. During the time when loon parents are trying to stuff their chicks with food, we humans are out there complicating the process by frolicking about in their vicinity. It seems quite plausible that this burst of human activity causes loons to lose precious foraging time and perhaps also access to their favorite foraging spot, if humans are using it. So we can easily see how human activity might cost loons some food and thus reduce mass.
If I am correct that humans impair loon foraging in clear lakes, then we can count breeding on a clear lake as a mixed blessing for loons. Clear water makes food easy to see and catch, but it brings hordes of humans that loons and their young must avoid — which cancels out a good deal of this advantage. Now, if a loon pair were to breed on a lake that had clear water and was inaccessible to humans, they would have it made! Sadly, this seldom happens in our neck of the woods.
In addition to this cool but somewhat distressing news about loon biology, I have distressing and not at all cool news about the Loon Project. We have just lost our primary funding source and are therefore going to be a bit tight for 2023 and perhaps beyond. I am hoping to use a “rainy day fund” to make it through 2023 in Wisconsin. Continuation of the work in Minnesota, which we began only two years ago, is now very much in doubt. If you can consider a donation to help us fight through this lean period — so that we can continue to learn about loon biology in ways that might help preserve the Upper Midwest loon population — we would really appreciate it.