One often hears that clear water is a benefit to loons — if not an outright requirement. The entry for the “Common Loon Habitat” section in Birds of the World, for example, opens with “[Loons] prefer clear lakes….”. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s page dedicated to the common loon begins with: “The eerie calls of Common Loons echo across clear lakes of the northern wilderness”.
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.
Wait. I posted a blog in the spring detailing the importance of water clarity to loon foraging success and explaining how rainfall was washing material into lakes and reducing clarity to loons’ detriment. Am I now taking that back? No indeed! Water clarity IS important to loon families in July. At that time of year, loon chicks gain mass much faster if the water is clear, and their adult parents maintain body mass better when water is clear. But further analysis has revealed an additional factor that is not so straightforward. I learned just a few weeks ago that loon chicks and their parents actually show lower mass in July in lakes that have high long-term clarity. That’s right; loons have higher masses when short-term water clarity is high but lower masses when they are in normally-clear lakes!
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.
Photo: The male of the Little Pine-Dream Island breeding pair spent a good deal of time off of the nest in late May of this year, because of black flies. He and his mate fought off the flies, incubated their eggs and fledged two chicks this year. Little Pine Lake, on the Whitefish Chain, is relatively clear, and the male’s purple and white bands are easy to make out.