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.

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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.

Loon headquarters has been abuzz this week. “Clara has a chick”, Annie announced yesterday. “Bobcat hatched….and Baker’s chick is getting big!”, exclaimed Allison. Martha remarked, “Two Sisters-West has a chick, and the male was really aggressive in defending it from intruders”. Lyn’s report was the most impressive. “All three pairs on Pickerel have chicks,” she declared in her characteristically understated way. Although the featured photo is, as usual, one of Linda Grenzer’s from her lake, Lyn saw a similar picture on the Pickerel-West territory.

In short, loon chicks have been bursting from their shells at a rapid rate in the past week. What’s more, many pairs without chicks are sitting on eggs that have survived for two weeks or more and thus are likely to hatch soon. So the pall that hung in the air just two weeks ago has lifted. As a person who looks obsessively for the negative in any circumstance, I am somewhat at a loss.

The new field observers’ responses to the recent flurry of hatching — and my own — has exposed a telling contrast. All of my teammates are observing loon breeding behavior for the first time. Since everything is new to them, they view the hatching explosion as the norm. Having studied the loons of Oneida County for 27 prior years, though, I see the recent burst of hatches as unusual. And having documented declining breeding success in our population over the past two decades, I was expecting more of the same in 2020. My shoulders, already drooping from carrying too many canoes since the end of May, had been drooping even more than usual in anticipation of another dismal breeding year. Although my teammates have been getting almost blasé about the popping out of many chicks across the study area, the mass emergence has got me standing a little straighter.

Let’s take a quick look, again, at how 2020 compares with 2014. In both years, over 70% of all first nests were abandoned because of black flies, so this should be an apples to apples comparison. As of July 4th, 2014, 14 pairs had chicks — 18 chicks in all — and 40 pairs were still sitting on eggs. After many recent hatches this year, there are now 22 pairs rearing 31 chicks; 25 nests are still active. If we project the likely rate of chick production from the remaining nests this year, 2020 will produce about the same number of chicks (52) that 2014 did (51). Now 2014 was a weak year, so producing the same number of chicks as 2014 is no great shakes. But 2020 looks to have about 20% more chicks reaching five weeks of age than last year. In a swoon of optimism, I am going to view the considerable improvement in loon breeding success from last to this year as the start of a promising trend.

 

By now, readers of the blog are aware that 2020 has been a devastating year for black flies in northern Wisconsin. The data are not all in yet, but a rough comparison between 2014, the worst black fly year on record, and this year shows that only five breeding pairs had hatched chicks in by 27 June 2014 — the same number of pairs that have hatched chicks so far this year. So this crude comparison suggests that 2020 is about on par with our worst year ever in terms of breeding activity being hindered and delayed by Simulium annulus.

Of course, 2020 is far from over. Most pairs, having failed once from black fly-related abandonment, have renested or may yet do so. But now I need to refer back to an earlier post, where I pointed out the record-setting rate of territorial turnovers this season. If many birds are newcomers to their territory, it makes sense that they are not fully familiar with the territory and how best to use it for breeding. In fact, since males choose the nest location, the responsibility for picking a raccoon-proof nesting spot — the major challenge that a nesting loon pair faces — falls to the male on each territory. The fact that 23 of 98 marked males in the study area are nesting for the first time on a new territory (twice the normal rate of turnover) means that — from a population perspective — we should expect a higher rate of predation in 2020 than in years past and fewer chicks.

Crunching the numbers again (crudely) in an attempt to predict chick production, we had 54 pairs incubating eggs as of 27 June 2014, compared to 49 pairs still incubating as of today. Although many 2020 nests are looking good because they have been underway for at least two weeks and/or are in proven successful locations, others are new and at untested nest sites selected by inexperienced males. So we should expect a poorer rate of hatch this year, overall, than the 76% rate that occurred among active nests on this date in 2014. If the hatch rate is 65% in 2020, then we will end up with 37 hatched broods, and an estimated 35 fledglings. In short, it is still looking like a weak year for chick production, but not quite the worst year ever. Times are such that we must take solace in that fact!

The good news is that loons learn. Few will ever be as savvy as Linda’s breeding pair, which kept incubating through the black fly period and already has three-week-old chicks (see Linda’s photo). But if return rates come back to normal after a crazy 2020, few territories in 2021 will be occupied by newcomers. Having lost a nest or two or three to raccoons in 2020, when they were learning their way around the territory, the greenhorn males of 2020 will improve their nesting decisions next year and hatch more chicks. So, as snake-bit as I am feeling owing to the double whammy of oppressive black flies and a bunch of new males blundering about in search of nest sites, I look forward to a better 2021.