I have never done this before. This year, though, I felt that I made such demands upon the field team of the Loon Project that I should take a moment at the end of the season to talk about each of the stout souls who are pictured above.

Bailee is from Missouri and had never seen a loon before she started in May. Though she does not seem very southern, she gracefully absorbed no end of jokes about being a southerner this summer. (“Missouri is in the Midwest!”, she protested.) She has a cheerful disposition and a ready smile, which were often valuable when we found ourselves seven hours into a night of loon capture, surrounded by thick fog, and unable to find any loons to catch. “I thought I was going to die in the first two weeks of work”, she admitted last night over pizza. “I mean….I couldn’t even lift a canoe onto my truck. After that, I adjusted.” Bailee grew into a committed and strong field observer and really stepped up to assume the duty of netting loons when my back gave out in late July and I needed a break.

Sarah, a Michigander and recent graduate of MSU, exudes a determined confidence. She too found she needed to adjust to all of the canoe lifting and miles of paddling in the first few weeks. After a recent summer studying endangered Piping Plovers, though, Sarah found she enjoyed studying a species that numbered more than a single breeding pair! Sarah became an excellent field worker and contributed in many unseen ways to keep the wheels on the Project spinning. Sarah took the lead, for example, in recording territorial yodels given by males to support an ongoing study we are doing. She also took lots of great photos and helped me start our “Loonstagram” account. (We are “loonproject”, for those with an Instagram account and a desire to follow us!) Sarah will always be remembered as the person who undertook a thorough search for — and ultimately found — a boat trailer key that had been lost for seven years!

Tia is a current Chapman student who took and excelled in my Intro Bio course there. Tia grew up in southern California and had never spent meaningful time in the East or Midwest. It was sometimes funny to witness her reactions to the climate and conditions in northern Wisconsin. My personal favorite: “It’s SO GREEN here!” Tia found the hordes of mosquitos that hounded us in the evenings as bizarre and horrid. Frankly, she showed enormous guts in taking on an internship on an intensive field project for the first time and in an area she had not visited previously. Like all new folks, she took some time to learn the ropes and become productive in the field. But she did adjust. She eventually got so proficient with banding that she helpfully barked out instructions for us at each step in the process!

Jordana is a UConn Huskie, and she brings an added northeastern twang and attitude to the study. Already a thousand miles from home during the training period in Wisconsin, Jordana bravely volunteered to venture farther west still to help build the new Minnesota study population. She is unusual in taking time to think and ask questions about loons based on her experiences and observations. It was Jordana, for example, who became concerned about what appeared a high rate of nest abandonment by loons during June. She advanced the hypothesis — which I look forward to testing — that the heat wave during early June might have caused eggs to overheat on many nests. She and Katy made invaluable efforts to pioneer our field study in Minnesota by finding new lakes, loons, and friendly lake residents.

Like Jordana, Katy volunteered to help put together a marked loon population in Minnesota. A Minnesotan herself, Katy quickly took to the work of loon study. Her skills as a canoeist and boater, tireless work ethic, and willingness to tackle any job made her immensely valuable to the study. She and Jordana developed a huge network of friends and contacts in the Crosslake area and found dozens of loon pairs with chicks that we could capture and mark as we worked to establish a new study population. Katy is an accomplished trouble-shooter. I will always remember how Katy solved the problem of how to strap a canoe onto Bailee’s truck. While I gnashed my teeth, pulled out my hair, and got nothing done, Katy calmly searched for a cargo rack that would fit, ordered it, and installed it!

Finally, Martha and Allison, veterans from 2020 field season, agreed to return for two weeks in July to help with loon scouting and capture in Minnesota. This wasn’t easy. Each had job responsibilities and needed to carve out time for the loons. As experienced hands, these two took lots of pressure off of me as we bought a boat and motor, readied our supplies and equipment, sweated equipment failure — and, most important, caught and marked Minnesota loons and chicks at a record pace (over ten a night) to lay the groundwork for a field study of marked individuals starting in 2022.

We on the Loon Project are in the habit of doing more with less. Our ability to accomplish so much depends upon the willingness of young people like this year’s Wisconsin and Minnesota field teams to tackle new physical challenges, conquer them, and emerge with high quality data on loon behavior and ecology. (In the process, of course, we hope that they have grown and acquired valuable field experience that will serve them well in their careers.) I am immensely proud of Bailee, Sarah, Tia, Jordana, Katy, Martha, and Allison. I shake hands and fill out paperwork, but these folks really ARE the project. Thanks, you guys!

I have always had mixed feelings about Katherine Lake. At 524 acres, it is far too large to be covered comfortably by canoe. Indeed, for the first 15 years of our study, Katherine was that big lake we drove past on our way to other, smaller lakes. In 2008 one of my field interns put in at the boat landing and found one pair with chicks…then another. We came in at night and banded all four adults. That settled it: Katherine was one of our study lakes — if one that everyone dreaded being assigned to cover. Over time, Katherine became less feared and just another study lake.

Yet Katherine seemed a tough place for loons from early on. In late May of 2009, the female of one of the two banded pairs injured her wing severely and died in short order. Two years later, her mate became hopelessly entangled in fishing line, yet was impossible to capture until he became very weak. He too died. The same year a five-year-old floater on the lake was hooked in the neck by an angler. This loon was caught and de-hooked; but we never saw it afterwards. Six years ago, an evicted male from Lake Seventeen took refuge on Katherine and tried year after year to raise chicks with his mate — without success. The situation seemed to reach an all-time low point in 2020, when, having placed their nest on a small, promising island, the male and his unbanded mate watched one egg and then the other roll off of their oddly sloping nest and into the lake. The male succumbed to lead poisoning on Lake Michigan last fall.

The outlook on Katherine is brighter at the moment. The death of the breeding male last fall opened up an opportunity. In the continuing rash of territory shifting that has occurred around Hazelhurst, a new male and female moved onto Katherine from nearby Lower Kaubashine Lake. The new male has had an especially colorful past. He lived on Upper Kaubashine from 2017 to 2019 and mysteriously moved to Lower Kaubashine in 2020 before finally coming to rest on Katherine three months ago. Thus, he has attempted to breed on three different Hazelhurst lakes in the past three years.

One might think of such an itinerant past as a recipe for disaster or perhaps an indication of poor breeding ability. But the new male has put the lie to all doubters by raising two strapping chicks this year. The Katherine female, who remained on Lower Kaubashine for a week or so in May after her mate left — as if having doubts about the move — was rewarded for following her mate. (Males are the limiting sex in the northern Wisconsin population, so a shortage of potential partners probably helped convince her to pull up stakes and abandon Lower Kaubashine for Katherine.)

So a lake like Katherine that seems snakebit can turn it around. It gets better. My gloomy assessment of Flannery Lake from a few months ago requires revision. Breaking a long streak of breeding frustration and failure, the Flannery pair finally has a healthy chick. I am by nature reluctant to trumpet such achievements, because I fear they will be followed by more struggles. But it is safe to say that Katherine, Flannery — and northern Wisconsin in general — can celebrate a better-than-average breeding year.

The weary Wisconsin Capture Team after our final night of work. August 2nd, 4:30 a.m.

One of the challenges of studying loons is that they are so well-loved. Many people have observed them, written down notes about them, and — here’s the problem — shared their speculations about all aspects of loon biology with others. Those of us who study loons are in a position of power, because the public looks to us for information. It takes some humility, when a journalist asks us a question about loons, to admit that we do not know the answer. Admitting ignorance is embarrassing. It disappoints the questioner. It makes us feel inadequate and uninformed. Yet admitting ignorance is vital. Our willingness to say we understand fully some aspect of loon biology that we do not — on websites, at conferences and in print — poses great problems for loon science and conservation.

Wait. Published material on loons should help move our understanding forward, right? Yes and no. Well-researched, robust science on loons improves our understanding; anecdotal, speculative work based on small samples of loons, inexpertly analyzed, and passed off as fact does not. In the field of loon behavior and ecology, a huge “grey literature” exists, which consists of popular loon articles, books, websites, unpublished Master’s theses, and low-brow pseudo-science that eked its way into the lower echelons of science journals. When such sketchy information makes up the majority of the material publicly available about loons, there is a real danger that speculation and pseudo-science might drown out real science.

There is good news, however. Our understanding of loon biology is better now than ever before. Across the continent, loon researchers have started to mark individual loons, examine many aspects of their ecology and behavior, use powerful statistical tests, and publish their findings regarding loons in peer-reviewed scientific journals. This last step is critical, because peer review means that three or more scientists are criticizing a paper submitted for publication anonymously and candidly before publication. In most cases, scientists who review loon research do not themselves study loons, so they can bring an important bit of objectivity to the process and read what a loon scientist writes without preconceived notions about the species. Reviewers who are not loon researchers, in effect, are helping pull the study of loons into the mainstream of scientific research. If scientific studies on loons are treated with the same level of rigor as those on fruit flies, downy woodpeckers, wolves, elephant seals, and angelfish, loon science will eventually become as robust and reliable as science carried out on other species.

Such rigor in loon study is long overdue. Now that we see multiple populations of loons declining in number or reproductively, we must do better. We need to advance from “there are still loons on my lake, so the population is stable” to careful, longitudinal quantification of adult survival, juvenile survival, breeding success, and other demographic parameters that can contribute to a valid statistical population model.

Why does it matter? Because when we fall into that very human trap of expounding upon a topic without a foundation of scientific fact, people sometimes listen and use our pronouncements in ways that we did not foresee. Case in point: the Minnesota loon population. Any population ecologist who looks at the data — well, lack of data, in this case — will tell you the following. We truly have no idea whether the population of loons in Minnesota is rising, falling, or remaining steady. We simply have not marked adults, carefully recorded their rate of return to their territories, measured the number of chicks they have produced, marked those chicks, measured the rate at which those chicks return, and plugged all of these data into a statistical model. Without such a thoughtful, complete analysis of survival and reproductive success, any statements about the Minnesota loon population are simply speculation — speculation that could be seized by others to undermine conservation efforts. Indeed, one difficulty faced by the “Get the Lead Out Minnesota” campaign (which anyone who loves loons and wildlife should support strongly) is that there are many baseless statements to the effect that the Minnesota loon population is stable in the media and the grey literature.

So, a plea. Let’s emulate population ecologists in describing our knowledge of loon populations in Minnesota and elsewhere. Let’s apply rigorous techniques and wait until the research has run its course to reach any conclusions. In the meantime, let’s have the courage to utter those most honest but difficult few words: “We don’t know”.

I am fearful of new challenges. In 1993, when I began to study the behavioral ecology of loons on a cluster of 12 Wisconsin lakes, doubt gnawed at me. How can one carry out meaningful, publishable, scientific research, if one’s study animals are large, aquatic, diving birds that range over huge territories, dive constantly, and must be followed in boats? Would my work be severely limited in scope, like that of researchers on porpoises, whales, and sea turtles? I had no training in field techniques for study of aquatic animals, only my childhood experiences paddling canoes over vast stretches of Lake Temagami in central Ontario. But my fascination with loons — which also grew during summers on Temagami — and my sense that canoes could be an effective means of tracking them without altering their behavior pushed me forward. And so, for reasons that I do not understand, I began to treat seemingly insurmountable problems with funding, logistics, and personnel as mere nuisances. And I ignored warning signals that any reasonable young scientist would have heeded. I began to study loons.

So it was in Minnesota. Although one might surmise that beginning a field project on loons in one state would be much like doing so in another, this is not so. True: loons are loons. We see many of the same behaviors, hear the same basic calls, and witness the same sorts of human-loon interactions in Minnesota that we have seen over the past 29 years in Wisconsin. But all else is new. Starting a major field study in the Crosslake area has reminded us that we have an army of friends, lake residents, and supporters in Wisconsin. These folks have housed us, fed us, carried us around in their boats at times, and — most important — provided us with a trove of information on our study animals to supplement our field data.

And our Minnesota study lakes are far larger than those in Wisconsin. Only a masochist would attempt to study loons on the massive Whitefish Chain — where about half of our Minnesota study animals reside — by canoe. So a growing list of Minnesota friends and supporters have provided us with boats — thanks, John, Mike, Mary, Keith, and Dawn! — that permit us to cover the big water. (By the way, several others have made our work possible by providing housing — thanks, Melanie, Charlie, Mary, Jim and Jon!) In fact, we have learned that we can move about far more easily on huge lakes than on the tiny lakes where most of our Wisconsin loons live. Moreover, we can hold our position in the water more effectively and work in greater comfort on the Chain, providing winds are calm.

However, loon capture is another matter. Having caught rather few loons on huge lakes in Wisconsin, I was concerned that my team would waste many hours each night scanning the dark water before our spotlight came to rest upon a tiny light smudge that would become, on approach, a loon parent and a chick that we could capture. In truth, we do spend somewhat more time searching for Minnesota loon pairs that we are accustomed to. Furthermore, locating loon families acoustically is more difficult in Minnesota, because Minnesota loons seem less vocal at night than their small-lake brethren in Wisconsin. But once located, loons in Crow Wing County have proved easier to capture. So my irrational fear that loon capture would be slower and more difficult in our new western study area was unfounded.

What progress have we made in Minnesota so far? Despite the ill-timed failure of an outboard motor that forced us to cut short our night and limp back to our boat landing using only a single canoe paddle and three tote box lids, we have marked 37

adults and chicks in four nights. We banded sixteen loons on Ossawinamakee alone last night. In a few hours’ time, five anonymous territorial loon pairs on Ossie have become a valuable set of individuals whose behaviors, life histories, and survival rates we can track to enrich our understanding of loon breeding behavior and population dynamics. Moreover, our experience in Wisconsin tells us that the brief capture and marking process leaves little or no imprint on loon behavior. Loons caught and marked one night act the next day as if the event never happened. They display the same casual indifference towards us and other humans that they showed on the day before.

On the other hand, we ourselves are greatly changed after we capture and mark loons. Marked loons are individuals to whom we are committed forever afterwards. Yes, we get scientific data from them. But marking creates a lifetime bond between observer and loon. We know these birds. We cheer as chicks we marked return as adults to the study area and claim territories. We mourn when marked parents lose a chick or abandon a nest. And we move heaven and earth to guard these individuals and come to their rescue, if they need it. It has proved impossible to maintain pure scientific indifference to our study animals.

In short, Minnesota loons are excellent study subjects. They ignore our visits to their territories and forgive us immediately after capture and marking. My initial fears and doubts about marking and observing Minnesota loons have subsided. We can now see that we will learn an immense amount about territorial behavior, breeding ecology, and population dynamics of Minnesota loons — if we are willing to shoulder the burden of an intensive field project in a new state on these most engaging birds.

We have been out all night for the past week capturing and marking adult loons and chicks. It is tiring work. Last night, for example, we had to carry our 14 foot motorboat off of a highway shoulder and into Sunday Lake. Next, we hefted it down a long flight of steep stairs, out a long narrow dock and into a marsh to reach the Minocqua-Huber Bay territory. My back still aches! But these visits were productive. In both cases, we captured a male hatched in the study area, his unmarked mate, and their two chicks. So our strenuous efforts were rewarded. (The Sunday male is a fifteen-year-old who was hatched on Seventeen Lake; the Minocqua male is only six and was reared on Brandy Lake.)

Our third lake of the night has a public landing. It was a breeze to back the trailer up and slide the boat into the weedy, pike-rich waters of Little Bearskin Lake. For a change, we were not sweating profusely and breathing hard as we began our improbable search for the pair and their young. However, we were not prepared for what we discovered.

The visit began routinely. We motored slowly to the middle of the lake to listen for the birds, as we often do. Within a minute, a bird wailed in the southeast corner. We were thrilled, because we seemed to have found the family quickly. The loon that had called was, in fact, only the female from the pair, who had wandered off separately from the male and chicks. Nevertheless, she responded strongly to our chick calls and was easy to scoop out of the water. As we removed her from the capture net, we were alarmed to find that she had a fishing lure and monofilament line wrapped tightly around her left leg.

Fishing line is unkind to wildlife. The very properties that make it attractive to anglers — its strength and thinness — give fishing line the ability to cut deeply and mercilessly into the flesh of animals unfortunate enough to become entangled in it. As the photo above shows, the female’s left leg was tightly wrapped, and a lure and hook had become attached to her leg.

Linda was able to cut away the line that had pierced the scaly, keratinized outer layer of the female’s left leg (see video below) and remove the attached lure. We are concerned about the raw tissue that was exposed by this piercing, but Linda applied antibacterial ointment, and we are hopeful that she will recover.

An injury to any loon is painful, but this one was doubly so. This mother of two chicks is the second oldest loon in our study area. She is at least 31 years old! First marked in 1996 on West Horsehead, she raised 19 chicks with three different males on that lake but was evicted in 2018 and fell off of our radar. We were delighted to see that she had resettled on the very productive Little Bearskin territory this spring with the 18 year-old male there. The two healthy chicks she has raised with him provide further evidence that females retain the ability to produce young during their later years.

But we worry. At 3500 grams, she is 250 grams or so lighter than when we captured her several years ago. This, the fact that she had left the male to care for the chicks last night, and the odd not-quite-wails that she uttered after we released her might indicate that she has been compromised by this angling injury.

In fact, she and we were extraordinarily lucky. Most “off-chick” adults — those not tending their chicks — are difficult to find at night and capture. Only the fact that we stumbled into her before we found the male and chicks allowed us to catch her, free her from the tightly-wrapped fishing line, and treat her injured leg. Now, at least, she has a fighting chance to resume her parental responsibilities, regain lost weight, return to her Florida winter quarters — and perhaps return again in 2022.

It is the July 4th weekend, and families are gathering, as they can, to spend the holiday together.

Though it happens with no advance planning and much less fanfare, loons too occur in tight family groups at this time. Their concerns, however, are rather mundane. Loons with chicks — especially small ones — just seek to keep them alive over the July 4th holiday. If loon parents can steer their young clear of inebriated speedboaters, dodge mischievous jetskiers, and elude countless fishing lines, lures, and deadly lead sinkers that are either in use or have been carelessly left in lakes, then they have a fighting chance to fledge them. The collective deep breath heaved by loon enthusiasts across the northern tier of North America just before the July 4th weekend produces an audible susurration picked up by remote sensing devices in the region.

Of course, some loon parents face greater obstacles than others in rearing and protecting their young. Pairs that must defend two chicks face greater stress than those defending only a singleton. No doubt that explains why males in pairs raising two young yodel three times as often as those with one. Now, imagine if you had not only two chicks to care for, but three, like the Bass Lake pair did in 2019.

As you might recall, a breeding loon pair in northwestern Montana accepted an even greater challenge. Bob LeBlanc has been dutifully observing, recording on video, and reporting on loon parents there that are rearing three young not even of their own species. And Bob has generously allowed me to share the story of this non-traditional avian family.

The three Montana goslings swim with a parent in their first week of life. Photo by Bob LeBlanc.

To my utter astonishment, the three loon-reared goslings are thriving. Bob’s reports show, moreover, that the goslings live a dual existence. Having evolved as nibblers on vegetable matter in fields and along shorelines, the three youngsters have had to adjust to foster parents that wish them to be on the water at all times. That adjustment seems minor for three malleable young waterfowl. Their wholly aquatic parents face a steeper climb, as they must watch over their charges whether on land or sea.

Three goslings rest together on the ground at the lower right, while two much-larger goslings from another family feed to the left. A watchful loon parent (the female in this case) remains nearby in the water. Video by Bob LeBlanc.

Bob’s video shows three things. First, the loon-reared goslings behave more or less like goose-reared goslings at most times. That is, they feed on shore extensively and rest there as well. Second, the nervous foster parents do not abandon them during their lengthy visits to shore but instead stand guard from a few meters away in the water. Third, although the goslings are comfortable on shore and fraternize with goose-reared goslings at such times (note the much older goslings in the first video), they know who their parents are and flee to them reflexively when danger approaches (as in the video below).

Three goslings flee quickly from shore, where they were resting, to the safety of their loon parent, as a threat looms. Video by Bob LeBlanc.

One more fact is not obvious from the video, but has been captured by Bob in still photos, such as the one below. Like the famous mallard duckling from two summers ago, the goslings are ravenous and opportunistic in acquiring food. Ducklings and goslings are not fed by their biological parents. So we might wonder what a newly-hatched gosling or duckling thinks when its loon foster parent leans down to it for the first time and offers a small minnow or crayfish. What do goslings and ducklings do? They grab the food, making it plain to the loon parents that they find this practice quite acceptable, despite their lack of genetic predisposition for it.

A gosling lunges for a fish presented to it by its loon parent, while its sibling looks on with jealousy. Photo by Bob LeBlanc.

And, oh yeah, the goslings have also learned to do something else that goslings do not normally do: they dive!

Lengthy dive by one of three loon-reared goslings. Video by Bob LeBlanc.

Jim Paruk, a biologist who has studied loons for even longer than I have, has just published a book on loons and his work. Loon Lessons is quite a good book, in my opinion. Jim is a self-effacing fellow, and he writes in a pleasant, matter-of-fact, humorous style that reflects his personality. He has also learned a great deal about loons. The knowledge he has gathered over the years — and in the run-up to his writing of the book, I suppose — has resulted in a solid, informative compendium about the species that long ago became the focus of my own research. His chapters on loon anatomy and diving, loon evolution, and human impacts, in particular, are authoritative, thought-provoking contributions to the loon literature.

Jim uses a simple but compelling tool throughout the book: adaptationism. That is, he presumes that the process of natural selection has guided the evolution of loons, as in all species. His task then becomes to learn how each aspect of the bird’s anatomy, ecology, and behavior has abetted its survival and reproductive success. He guides the reader through example after example by this formula. The result, fortunately, is entertaining, effective, and convincing.

Like any successful piece of writing, Jim’s book leaves you thinking in new ways. For example, he spends a good deal of time discussing loons’ bright, conspicuous breeding plumage and seeking to understand how the striking black and white pattern might aid loons in surviving or breeding successfully. I will not steal his thunder by sharing the conclusion, but he makes a good case. And, as a scientist, I believe that Jim’s hypothesis about loon coloration is testable, at least to a degree.

Jim’s unrelenting focus on the adaptive value of loon traits breaks down a bit when he comes to “social gatherings” — the summer aggregations of four or more adults that seem to swim peacefully together across a lake surface for a half hour or more. (Sarah Dibbet’s photo at top shows a social gathering that she observed today in our Wisconsin study area.) Our study area is unique in that relentless banding of chicks has yielded a large population of young floaters aged two to seven years that are major participants in social gatherings. Analyzing the behavior of these floaters statistically has shown us that they seek to find territories with chicks so that they can return the following year to evict a pair member and take its place as a breeder. Naturally, parents of chicks seek to hide them from floaters to keep the chicks alive and also prevent floaters from learning the value of the territory in one year and evicting them the next. This high stakes game of hide and seek is the fulcrum on which social gatherings rest.

Lacking a large population of marked young floaters to observe, Jim, like earlier loon biologists, falls back upon speculation to explain social gatherings. Judy McIntyre, whose 1988 book, The Common Loon, inspired Jim and me to begin studying loons but who worked with unmarked individuals, interpreted social gatherings as efforts of loons “to reinforce cooperation among adults.” Loon Lessons takes its cue from McIntyre, stating: “Social gatherings likely foster cooperation among potential flock members”. (To be fair, Jim acknowledges that an additional reason for social gatherings might be “to gather information about the availability of a mate or a territory”.) Thus, both authors suggest that loons attend these get-togethers chiefly to prepare for feeding together in fall pre-migratory flocks. This is pure speculation, by the way; no loon biologist has identified participants in social gatherings and followed up to see if these same individuals forage jointly, months later, in pre-migratory flocks.

How could two distinguished, knowledgable loon biologists struggle to understand one of the most familiar and conspicuous loon behavior patterns? As I have implied, the main reason is simple: lack of marked floaters. Floaters are major players in social gatherings; fifty-five percent of the adults that Jim observed during his study of social gatherings were unmarked. The second reason why many of us who love loons (I place myself in this group) are often unable to come to grips with some aspects of their social behavior is that we love them too much. We place loons on a pedestal. We wish them not to be cold and calculating but better than ourselves. But they’re not.

Yes, it has come to this. Chick production of breeding pairs in northern Wisconsin has declined steadily during the past quarter-century. Black fly outbreaks have made hatching success even worse in the past five years. So we are searching desperately for a positive outcome that we can greet with a sigh of relief. And we have one: breeding success has ticked slightly upwards in 2021.

I wish I could report that breeding success has rebounded with a vengeance. After a dreadful 2020, I felt that a strong rebound might be in order. But the recovery has been modest. Looking at the numbers, only three breeding pairs in our study area had chicks as of this date in 2020. That laughably low number resulted from 97% abandonment rate of May 2020 nesting attempts owing to black flies. Meanwhile 59 pairs were incubating eggs on this date in 2020. As of August of last year, 36 pairs were rearing chicks. This amounts to about 33% chick production in 2020 (36 of 110 breeding pairs). At present, we have 24 pairs in Wisconsin raising chicks and 41 other pairs still sitting on eggs. If we use the 2020 nesting outcomes to project 2021 success, we should end up this year with roughly 46 of 110 pairs with chicks in northern Wisconsin. A 42% breeding success rate is nothing to crow about. But since I am a positive person, I will choose to focus instead on the 28% increase in chick production between last and this year!

What about Minnesota? We have only just arrived in Minnesota and have no data from 2020. So we are not able to provide a very calibrated picture of breeding success in the Crosslake area, where we are located. Furthermore, Crow Wing County, where we work, is running about a week behind Wisconsin, so our data are even more preliminary in Minnesota than in Wisconsin. Still, we can already say that 2021 was a light black fly year in north-central Minnesota, as it was in northern Wisconsin. And that is a good thing. Out of 104 territorial pairs we are currently following in the Crosslake area, Jordana and Katy reported a few days ago that 13 have chicks and 42 are on nests. We estimate that the total pairs with chicks will number about 40, by the time August rolls around. But we are still scouting many of our Minnesota lakes, so that number could grow to 50.

Scouting new lakes is a tricky business, by the way. Going onto a new lake with no information on previous loon usage or breeding success forces you to read the behavior of loons on the lake to infer if those you see are: 1) an established pair that has is not currently incubating eggs, 2) a pair that hangs out together but never breeds, 3) an unpaired young floater, or 4) the “off-nest” member of a pair, whose mate is on a nest on the lake. Katy and Jordana’s daily sleuthing has been effective so far. But sometimes you misread the signs, which, in fact, can be thrilling. No doubt a few lakes where K and J found no loon or only a skittish loner on their first visit will offer a view like that in Linda’s photo on their second.

Our work in Minnesota is just beginning. Although we have great support from the National Loon Center and seem to be getting lots of folks from across the state interested in our work, there is much left to do. At present, we are scouting lakes in the Crosslake area and hoping to find chicks so that we can band the chicks and their parents. Only through this arduous process can we establish a large study population, measure survival rates, and construct a population model for Minnesota loons. So far we have only fifteen banded birds in our entire Minnesota study area.

Make that sixteen. On Wednesday, Katy and Jordana found a new nesting pair on Lower Whitefish. This duo — the nesting loons, not Jordana and Katy — has the distinction of using the oldest, most sunken, washed-out nesting platform that we have yet seen in Minnesota. (Most nesting platforms that we have found in our new study area are quite bouyant and well maintained.) The platform location is also exposed to a substantial wind fetch, not to mention endless wakes from passing boats. And yet, drawn to this location by the predator-resistant nesting opportunity, a pair of loons has made this site their home.

Jordana shared the news of this new nesting pair with me in the most thrilling possible way. She told me there was a nest and sent me a video of one of the pair members swimming underwater and behaving protectively towards it. I immediately ran the video and caught an unmistakable sparkle on the bird’s left leg. (Note the bright white spot on the left leg of the loon in the featured photo and the video below.) The sparkle told me that the bird had a silver band on its leg that was catching the sunlight; the fact that the left leg was banded told me that this loon was an “ABJ” (adult banded as a juvenile) and not an “ABA” (adult banded as an adult). Hence, this loon, when we capture it and confirm its age and natal origin from the number on its USGS metal band, will be the first known-age individual in our Minnesota study area.

So this is not just any pair of loons. No, this Minnesota loon pair represents a first for the new Minnesota study area, because one of the two pair members is an individual whose age can be known precisely. Kevin Kenow of the USGS captured and marked this silver-banded loon as a chick four to six years ago on a different part of the Whitefish Chain. At present we must say “four to six years ago” because Kevin placed only a single band on the left leg of this bird, and he banded six other loon chicks similarly. Until we capture it, we will not know which of those seven chicks grew into this breeder. However, we can be virtually certain that the banded loon is a male, because most females settle to breed many miles from their natal lake.

Why am I so excited to see this young adult settle in our study area? Because one very important demographic parameter we seek to measure in Minnesota loons is the survival rate of juveniles and young adults. This, you may recall, is the cohort of the Wisconsin loon population that has suffered a high rate of mortality in recent years and thrown that population into decline. While we will be able to estimate the survival rate of breeding Minnesota loons — a crucial parameter in its own right — after another year or two of work, it will take five years or so before we have seen enough settlements of ABJs like this male to produce a good estimate of young adult survival in Minnesota. But the sight of this first young settler shows that we are on the road.