Sometimes on our research project, we observe a rapid series of nasty events that defy explanation and really shake us up.
This happened to my field interns in Wisconsin. They were “roving” outside our normal study lakes, visiting lakes that are either on the fringes of our 110-lake study area or with little past history of supporting loons. On July 8th, Sarah and Claudia found an adult with a fishhook hanging out of its head on the left side, behind and below the ear. Sarah, Claudia, and Chris covered Little Bass Lake on the following day — and found what appeared to be a second loon with the exact same problem.
We have seen dozens of angling casualties at this point, but we had never seen two weird and very similar hookings in rapid succession. Our puzzlement increased one day later, when Claudia was alone on Dorothy and saw a third loon hooked in this peculiar and painful way. (The featured photos at the top are hers.)
When Claudia contacted me and Linda Grenzer and described what she had seen, we had brief paranoid thoughts, “Oh my god; someone is systematically casting at loon’s heads and hooking them!” (Linda tells me this has actually happened before.) Or, on a deeper rung of paranoia: “Someone is capturing loons, sticking hooks in their heads, and releasing them.”
Repeated visits to the three lakes by our team shed more light. When Linda and her husband, Kevin, attempted to capture the hooked Buffalo bird, they did not find it on the lake on one night. Linda and Kevin also observed what they are confident are two different loons with very similar hookings on Little Bass Lake on two separate nights.
Here is what I conclude. First, these are young birds — probably floaters — but clearly not territorial birds with strong ties to these lakes. They are doing what loons do between ages 2 and 7: they are drifting about but staying in the same general area. If you scrutinize the photos above, it seems apparent that the 1st (Buffalo) and 3rd loons (Dorothy) are the same. Each shows a hook embedded in the loon’s head in the vicinity of the left ear, a fishing snap and swivel hanging off of the hook, and no fishing line attached to the swivel. But the feathers obscure the wound itself. On the other hand, the middle photo from Little Bass shows what appears to be open, inflamed tissue, again with a naked snap and swivel dangling from a hook or lure. Linda and Kevin think that the middle loon is certainly a different bird. I think it might be the same bird, even though the wound looks different. Either way, the loon(s) are dealing well with what appears to be a severe injury, because they are flying from lake to lake and intruding into breeding territories (Dorothy), as they should be.
Speaking of coping well with injury, we had another unpleasant angling event in northern Wisconsin during the past week. A male marked by the DNR eleven years ago on a territory near Three Lakes became incapacitated and was taken for treatment by Wild Instincts in Rhinelander. Their X-ray photo reveals the problem — this bird has a treble hook lodged in its gizzard. The bird has bounced back and been released at this point, but the nasty treble hook and attached line is still inside him. (Removal, of course, would have involved extensive surgery likely to harm the bird further.) We can only hope that the male’s digestive system will grind down and pass these hooks eventually, as we have seen in other loons.
In short, loons have taken some hard punches recently, as we have come to expect at this peak fishing time. If they are lucky enough to avoid the death sentence of a swallowed lead sinker or jig, they can be remarkably resilient.