Though it sounds odd to say, people put loons on a pedestal. Their love for loons causes many people to want them to be a bit better than us. Of course, this is the origin of the popular myth that loons mate for life. Such a handsome animal, it seems, should have behavior to match. Besides, loons certainly appear to work so well together in foraging, defending their territory, and rearing young that one can easily imagine that male and female are committed to each other deeply.

Having studied several other species of animals before turning to loons, I did not share the expectation that loons would be good role models for humans. I had seen too many cases of nature red in tooth and claw. In fact, I suppose I expected to learn ways in which loons might not fit the mold of traditional monogamy. What has surprised me the most of all my findings is the degree to which loons have broken that mold. Rather than aiming to remain paired with a single mate throughout their lives, loons seem pursue a far different but straightforward goal. They seek to produce as many chicks as possible by remaining on a breeding territory whenever possible. This strategy requires them to turn a blind eye when their mate is evicted by another loon. Their allegiance is to the breeding territory, not the mate.

No territory illustrates the cold pragmatism of loons better than Blue Lake-Southeast. Recent years have been turbulent on Blue-Southeast. In 2015, the male was evicted by an unmarked male after producing two chicks with his mate. The displaced male hung around on the lake and later regained his position, but last year was a repeat performance; this time a four-year-old male from Bolger Lake evicted the long-term male after hatching and killed the single chick. In a scene worthy of Greek mythology, the Bolger bird actually picked up the lifeless two-week-old chick while chasing its mother across the water’s surface.

Now, if a human mother had witnessed such a grisly spectacle, I doubt if she would have been able to forgive and forget. But loons are not humans; the female whose chick had been killed by the usurper quickly paired with him and remained so this spring. The unlikely pair weathered the black fly emergence in May, hatched a chick in early June, and are now raising that chick on the east lobe of Blue Lake. As the triptych of photos above shows, I caught up with this very tame family yesterday afternoon. At the time, “Chick-Killer” (as my field team affectionately calls the male) was enthusiastically diving for food for the thriving chick, while the female looked on. The dutiful, coordinated parenting of the two adults suggested that they constitute an indivisible unit — that their pair bond would withstand the test of time. But looks are deceiving.

My world gets turned topsy-turvy each year when the first chick hatches. Each year at this time most pairs are struggling just to hold their territories, find safe nesting sites, lay eggs, and fight off the black flies that chew on them. Today, for example, I visited four established pairs that had built nests and laid eggs, but only one — I am proud to say it is the pair on our home lake, Currie — is still incubating the eggs. The others had abandoned their nests owing to black fly infestation. Four lakes is too few to draw conclusions, but my findings today illustrate the debacle produced by black flies again this year. I am just not quite sure how to reconcile the carnage I saw today on my circuit of lakes with the engaging photo that Linda Grenzer took of the Jersey City male alertly guarding his chick.

I suppose the clearest message sent by the news of a successful hatch is that the world is varied and bright spots remain. Indeed, many loon pairs are beating the black flies and thriving. In fact, a few dozen pairs will follow JCF’s lead and hatch young in the next week or two. Moreover, most pairs that have fallen victim to black flies will lay a second clutch of eggs shortly; there is still ample time to hatch and rear young that can migrate south in November. So do not worry if the loons on your lake are swimming distractedly about right now instead of sitting on eggs. They will likely get back to it soon. In the meantime, take heart — as I am trying to — in the photo above.

 

 

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Most of us think of adult females as the main care-givers and protectors of the offspring. I am reminded of this constantly during my work. Several times a year, when I chat with a lake resident about their loons, I hear them say “She was on the nest today” or “The mom was feeding them down at the south end” or “She hollered like crazy when the eagle flew near the chicks”. It is natural for humans to infer that the female takes the lead in breeding activities; after all, we are mammals. In almost all mammals, females protect the young within their bodies for many weeks or months before they are born and continue to care for the young by themselves after they are born. Lengthy gestation makes male parental assistance superfluous, so mating systems have evolved in which males occupy themselves in other ways. Most mammals are either polygynous (one male mated with multiple females) or promiscuous (rapid mating and the lack of a pair bond). Females, in such cases, are left to provide most or all of the parental care, because males are either engaged in seeking out new mates or are not around at all.

Birds are different. Laying of eggs “frees” females, in the sense that they are not physically connected to the eggs and are no better equipped to care for eggs or young than are males. In birds, therefore, monogamy and biparental care are the rule. Most male birds  mate with a single female and provide substantial assistance to her in rearing the young. Male loons, as I have noted in the past, incubate the eggs equally with females and actually provide somewhat more parental care for chicks. Thus, more often than not, when folks tell me that the female hollered at a menacing eagle, or the female was feeding the chick lots of minnows this morning, they have mistaken the male for the female. (This puts me in the awkward position of either correcting the mistake, at the risk of embarrassing my friend, or grinning good-naturedly and leaving the error unchallenged.)

I got one more reminder of male loons’ central role in reproduction during a statistical analysis this past week. I asked whether males or females show age-related changes in fledgling production as they mature from young territory holders to middle-aged to senescent adults. (Note that one bar is missing for each sex in the figure below: too few females settle by age 5 and too few males survive to age 24 to produce reliable estimates of reproduction for those age-classes.) Both sexes show an increase in fledgling production after their first few years on territory, a pattern seen in many animals. Females showsenescence-paper-figure-3

“reproductive senescence”, another widespread pattern, in that fledgling production declines near the end of life. What is surprising here is that males do not show a decline in fledgling production as they reach old age.

What is odd about the male pattern? We have growing evidence that male loons decline at a younger age and more severely than females do. Recent analyses have shown that males lose body weight as they age, and that males suffer a high rate of mortality, especially as they reach their late teens. And, of course, males engage in dangerous battles. So the capacity of old males to produce lots of chicks into their 20s runs counter to what we would expect based on male survival and body condition. How do they do it? We are still puzzling over the pattern, but the most likely explanation is that old males invest heavily in chick production — perhaps through extra feedings of chicks or an extended period of care — to crank out a few more chicks before the wheels come off completely. Hence, old male loons appear to make a “terminal investment” in breeding success. Of course, nothing is free. Terminal investment is a deal with the devil; high chick-rearing success comes at the cost of earlier death.

 

LMG_2782 Muskellunge Chicks Hide from Intruders

Linda Grenzer’s striking photo from two weeks ago got me thinking about loon breeding success. The picture is a sight that will please loon fanciers — two big healthy 9-week-olds resting side by side while their parents circle with intruders. (The chicks are holding their legs out of water, as resting loons commonly do.) Since territorial pairs almost never lay more than two eggs or hatch more than two young, the photo depicts a monster year for the breeders on Muskellunge Lake. Despite black flies and raccoons (which threaten nests), eagles, muskies and snapping turtles (which attack chicks), and constant intrusions by competing adults (which seek to drive adult breeders off of their lakes), the male and female on this lake reared two chicks to adulthood. Quite an achievement!

For Muskellunge, 2016 marks the sixth year in a row of chick production. Ten chicks in all have been raised by the pair during this stretch (including one rehabbed chick we added to their singleton brood in 2014). While I am thrilled to see such an abundance of chicks come from a single lake, it is not the norm. As residents on most lakes well know, loon breeding is a dicey proposition.

Consider, for example, South Two Lake, a normally productive breeding lake where the sudden disappearance of two successful breeders after 2015 left the lake wholly without a pair in May and June of this year, until it was finally resettled by a male and female in July — far too late for nesting. Or look at the Boom Lake-Hodag Park territory, where the pair had fledged five chicks across the past four seasons until the male became entangled in fishing line in the spring of 2016 near Panama City, Florida and never reached Wisconsin. Baker Lake was a consistent chick producer until 2013, when a five year-old male settled there with an unmarked female; they have lost nests to predators each year since then. Most spectacularly, the productive pair on Blue Lake-Southeast weathered the storm of parasites, egg robbers and chick predators only to see the male lose territorial ownership to a young usurper, which resulted in the chick’s death. Finally, pity the pair on tiny Liege Lake or Wind Pudding-West where, despite successful territory defense and incubation, the parents were unable to locate enough food to raise a single chick past six weeks of age.

In light of the many hazards facing loon pairs, it seems remarkable that we ever see a photo such as the one above. As one might surmise from the preceding paragraphs, there are several requirements for successful breeding. Abundant food is essential, of course. Each year, many pairs attempt to breed on tiny lakes where food limitation prevents them from rearing even a single chick, let alone two. Nesting habitat is vital; lack of boggy or marshy shoreline or an island prevents many pairs from even attempting to breed. Two less obvious factors can make or break a breeding effort: 1) the ability of both pair members to maintain their breeding positions throughout the season despite an onslaught of young adults looking to evict them, and 2) the male’s familiarity with proven successful nest sites, which dictates whether the nest is positioned in a location likely to survive four weeks of incubation.

Some breeding pairs have everything going for them, so that they surmount all obstacles and raise chicks to fledging year after year. Muskellunge (see photo) is large enough — at 160 acres — that food abounds, and the lake features several shoreline zones that support nesting. The resident female is much larger than average and aggressively repels intruders that challenge her. She is paired with a tough 18 year-old male — a bird experienced enough to know the locations of multiple nest sites on the lake but young enough to be in good physical condition and not vulnerable to eviction. In short, Muskellunge Lake is currently in a “sweet spot” for raising chicks, like Townline, Manson, Little Bearskin, East Horsehead, and Buck Lake. Lakes that get on a roll like these produce a disproportionate number of chicks, which will mature, return, and sustain the population. In time, these productive territories will falter, owing chiefly to the loss of one or both members of the vigorous, experienced breeding pair. For now, though, let’s enjoy the bounty of offspring that these lakes produce and look forward to the emergence of new productive territories that will succeed them.

 

If you have been floundering lately, as I have, let’s gain some perspective by considering the plight of the Silver Lake loons. The pair’s struggles began in mid-May, as black flies thwarted their efforts at incubating a first clutch of eggs. According to Pat Schmidt, who watches the pair carefully throughout the breeding season, incubation proceeded normally during the nighttime — cool temperatures kept the relentless pests at bay. But the marked female and male were unable to stay on the eggs during daylight hours, when black flies were active and biting. On again, off again incubation finally gave way to abandonment during the last week of May, but the pair reset themselves quickly, adding two additional eggs to the two they had earlier tried and failed to hatch. Despite the cumbersome task of warming four large eggs simultaneously, the birds produced a chick at the very end of June. Their fortunes seemed to have turned.

The greatest risk faced by a breeding loon pair with a chick is our national bird. Bald eagles nest on tall white pines along lake shores and are a frequent sight over lakes. Indeed, eagles are such a routine part of the scenery on the lakes that loons often deign to wail at them as they pass overhead. Eagle fanciers might try to convince us that these raptors even purposely lull loons into a false sense of security with their constant, mostly innocuous flights nearby so that they can occasionally strike at loons suddenly with deadly purpose. An opportunity for such a surprise attack might occur when an eagle appears just above the tall trees at the lake’s edge as a week-old chick’s parents both happen to be underwater diving for food. Perhaps it was such happenstance that allowed an eagle to carry off the Silver Lake chick on July 2nd. In any event, eagle predation brought the breeding efforts of the pair to an unsuccessful close this year.

The sting felt by lake residents at the loss of the chick had begun to abate by July 18, at which point the territorial female, “Copper” (named for one of her plastic leg bands), found herself in a desperate battle. She was beaten badly, chased across the water, attacked from below as she rested on the lake surface, and finally forced to take refuge on land to escape further damage. By the time the violence had ceased, Copper had to be carried, helpless, to the Northwoods Wildlife Center. She died there a few days later.

As I have made clear in numerous posts, males are the ones that battle dangerously (apparently because of senescence) in most cases. So how do we explain the latest Silver debacle? An oddity concerning contestants might offer a clue in this case. Copper, who had reared chicks on Silver in 2014 and 2015, had battled repeatedly for ownership over the past several years with her bitter rival, “Mint”, the previous Silver female and mother of the chicks in 2010 and 2012. Even after losing the territory to Copper in early 2013, Mint was a frequent intruder into Silver Lake. Hence, both females had raised chicks in multiple years with the male, and both were highly motivated to vie for control of the territory. In addition, banding records indicate that Copper and Mint were of very similar size.

Now to game theory. If an animal encounters a long-lived opponent with which it is very closely matched in fighting ability but happens to get the upper hand at some point, it might then pay for that first animal to press its advantage and even kill the opponent. Why? Because our research has shown us that closely-matched pairs of females, like Copper and Mint, often give each other fits. Two females on Heiress and two others on Oscar-Jenny were so close in fighting ability that they traded off ownership of those territories over many years, each female hindered in her breeding efforts because of the constant interruptions of the other. The result was poor reproductive success for both rivals. Although there is enormous risk involved, it might occasionally pay for females to exhibit the vicious battling we associate with males. Specifically, a lightning strike to finish off your archrival might sometimes be worthwhile to avoid a chronic, destructive feud.

 

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Loon capture is a blur. We set out from our house at 8:45 pm, launch our small motorboat on the first lake, wait for nearly complete darkness, and catch any loon chicks and parents that we can net easily. By the time we have repeated the process four more times, we are rubbing our eyes, our weariness justified somehow by the presence of the sun lurking just below the horizon.

As an essentially negative person, what I often recall after a night of capture and banding are the physical demands of the process and my complete exhaustion. But there are dimensions of the work that are exciting and rewarding. Each loon is unique, and one never knows whether an individual will permit itself to be approached closely and netted or will be wary and elude us. So we experience many disappointments, but they are tempered by the occasional thrill of capturing an individual that, at first glance, appeared too skittish to catch.

The fruits of loon capture are obvious. By marking individuals and resighting them year after year, we learn about survival rates of adults and juveniles, territory fidelity, natal dispersal, and habitat preference. We glean a good deal of important information from these data. For example, survival rates of young and adults allow us to learn whether the  local population is increasing, decreasing, or remaining stable. And tracking of young loons from egg to first territory has revealed that loons develop strong preferences for breeding lakes that closely resemble their natal lake. Finally, capture is essential as a means to disentangle loons that have been run afoul of angler’s lines or lures.

This year’s capture exposed another distinctive pattern in loon ecology: the presence of ecological traps. An ecological trap is a breeding habitat that appears at first glance to be a good one but ends up being poor for reproduction. For example, a field might experience a burst of insect activity during early spring, enticing songbirds to settle there for breeding, but a crash in insect levels after eggs hatch might occur that suppresses the number of young birds produced. Two nights ago, we captured two chicks from two different lakes back to back. The first territory was a shallow 11-hectare portion of Wind Pudding Lake (my favorite lake name). The chick captured there was a five-week-old that weighed a scant 0.92 kg — less than half what we would expect from a chick of that age. Our daytime observations show that the chick’s parents are no slouches; they respond to its constant begging by making frequent dives and retrieving what food they can to feed it. Moreover, the chick itself dives often to forage. But this shallow lake, covered almost entirely by lily pads (which impair loon foraging), offers scant sustenance. I am afraid that the emaciated Wind Pudding chick will ultimately starve to death, as did the chick on nearby Liege Lake, another shallow lake choked by vegetation. Loon parents on small, acidic lakes struggle to rear even a single chick, whereas those on large lakes of neutral pH often raise two. This stark contrast was highlighted for us, as the lake we visited following Wind Pudding was 1373-hectare Lake Tomahawk. To be sure, loon parents on Tomahawk must steer their chicks through countless jet skis, water-skiers, anglers, and speed boats at all times of day. But vigilant parents are rewarded with abundant food for themselves and their chicks. The Tomahawk-Sunflower Bay chick held by Mina in the photo weighed 3.02 kg, yet it was only a few days older than the chick on Wind Pudding. Clearly the strapping youngster in the photo is heading for a healthy future and likely fledging.

Why on Earth would loons settle to breed on lakes that often provide too little food for their chicks? The answer might relate to the disconnect between nesting and foraging requirements. Alas, large lakes that contain many fish for loons often lack the islands, emergent marshy bays, and bogs that allow loons to avoid egg predators like raccoons. So loons looking to breed seem to be lured onto small, marshy lakes that yield successful hatches but doom their offspring to starvation.

Why would a breeding pair of loons — which has made an enormous investment in defending a territory, finding a nest site, incubating their eggs for almost a month, and then rearing their chicks — leave them alone? Such behavior seems reckless, almost dysfunctional. Yet loon pairs commonly “desert” their offspring for periods of hours, while they themselves visit neighboring lakes. During such times, of course, chicks are left to cope with all manner of predators and other dangers without parental assistance.

The leaving of chicks behind by parents does not occur willy-nilly. That is, not ALL chicks are deserted, only those that have reached at least four weeks of age. Some chicks, like those I watched on O’Day Lake this morning, are highly alert to their surroundings, like adults, and capable enough hunters that they are already providing over half of their own food. (Note the expert-looking dive by the chick in the video.) One can imagine that temporarily leaving behind chicks of this age does not carry huge risks. At six weeks of age, chicks can detect and flee from eagles, when necessary. So perhaps the risk of leaving your chicks to fraternize with neighboring adults is not great.

Still, temporary chick-desertion surely carries some risk. If the choices are remaining on your territory with your chicks versus departing to a nearby lake to visit with other adults, the first option is clearly the safer one. The only conclusion to draw from what appears to be rather reckless socializing by pairs with chicks is that they must gain something nontrivial from doing so to compensate for the small risk that their chicks will be lost during their absence.

Their are several possible explanations for parents’ trips to neighboring lakes. One hypothesis maintains that parents encounter and become familiar with neighbors whom they might have to battle later for a territory or with whom they might pair in the future. If so, recognizing and learning about other adults might provide for more effective fighting or breeding. A second idea is that parents leave their chicks in order to forage on lakes other than their own so as to maintain robust food levels for the chicks. Thirdly, temporary desertion of the chicks might constitute part of the weaning process; chicks often beg incessantly when with their parents, and perhaps chicks must be without parents to begin foraging effectively on their own in preparation for adulthood. A fourth explanation is that parents, which are conspicuous to other adults owing to their bright plumage, desert their breeding lakes in order to avoid giving away the fact that they have chicks. (Behaving this way might reduce the likelihood that a young nonbreeder could target the territory for eviction, since we know that intruders use chicks as an indication of a good territory.  ) If this explanation is correct, then parents are essentially trying to “decoy” intruders away from their own lake by visiting a neighboring territory nearby. The hypothesis is plausible, because: 1) intruders are strongly drawn to other adults in the water, and 2) intruders appear to find chicks only after seeing and approaching the chicks’ parents.

One final curious behavior seen in loons and chicks provides partial corroboration for the “decoy hypothesis”. When faced with an intruding loon flying over their lake, adults and their chicks dive and scatter. That is to say, adults and their chicks make every effort to hide from intruders by diving and spreading out in the lake, which complicates discovery. If loon parents are desperate to hide their chicks from intruders, what better way to do so than by flying off to other lakes near their own — and thus using their conspicuousness to draw intruders to those lakes — and leaving their cryptic chicks at home, where they will most likely escape notice from the air.

The decoy hypothesis is complex. Its crux is that loon parents are protecting their own future breeding prospects by taking a slight risk with their current chicks. In time, we will be able to determine if parents that practice short-term chick desertion enjoy longer territorial tenure. If so, this will be a stunning example of effective long-term planning in the animal kingdom!

 

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With Mother’s and Father’s days still fresh in mind, maybe this is an apt occasion to relate a quirky instance of parenting in loons. The topic came up abruptly last week, when Doug Giles, a lake resident in British Columbia, sent these photos. At first, I could not even

_IMG0771 fathom what species of duckling was receiving this unanticipated caregiving. A frantic web search of ducks breeding in the vicinity revealed that this is a young Common Goldeneye. But how could such a duckling escape the watchful eye of its own mother and blunder into the path of a pair of loons?

The curious breeding behavior of goldeneye ducks provides a clue. Goldeneyes lay 7 to 10 eggs in tree cavities, and the female is the sole incubator. (Male goldeneyes leave the picture shortly after incubation begins and play no role in rearing offspring.) Goldeneye ducklings follow their mother away from the nest a few days after hatching. Unlike loons, goldeneye young feed themselves; their mother merely protects them and guides them to feeding areas where they are relatively safe from predators. The task of herding ten or so ducklings about creates logistic hurdles; ducklings commonly fall behind or lose track of their mother and siblings. When goldeneye hens converge in the process of guiding their respective broods, young intermingle, creating creches of dozens of ducklings of varying parentage. Finally, female goldeneyes, especially those with small broods, often abandon them — leaving the ducklings to fend for themselves or coalesce with broods where the female is still present.

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In short, rearing of massive goldeneye broods seems haphazard and impersonal when compared with the parental behavior of common loons. If common loons are modern-day human parents in the era of small families, abundant participation awards, and kindergarten SAT prep; goldeneyes are the all-out reproducers of the pioneer days, never quite certain of how many young they have and where they all are! So we should not be surprised to encounter a misplaced or forgotten goldeneye duckling.

But why would loons adopt a young animal that differs markedly from a loon chick? First, it is important to understand that loons — like many animals — are hormonally primed to care for young. That is, young production is the crucial measure of evolutionary fitness, so we should expect all species to be committed to the rearing of young, if parental care is obligatory for survival in that species. Apparently, the drive to provide parental care is sufficiently strong that it can get misdirected at times. Among all ducks that loons might adopt, goldeneye are a good match, as they are diving ducks (not dabblers, like mallards) and subsist mainly on aquatic invertebrates and occasional small fish. Clearly this duckling is developing more of a taste for fish than is usual for its species, as Doug Giles’ first photo shows. The duckling’s willingness to accept food from another individual, moreover, shows impressive flexibility in behavior that we might not have expected.

While we can understand how the adoption of a goldeneye by loons is plausible, it is still a remarkable event. The likeliest outcome of a close brush between a small duckling and a loon pair is an attack; many ducklings are killed by loons each year. Perhaps this loon pair was primed for adoption by having lost their second chick shortly before they encountered the stray duckling.

One factor to which we definitely cannot attribute the successful adoption is relatedness between ducks and loons. Ornithologists have long known that ducks and geese are not closely related to loons. In fact, goldeneyes are cousins of turkeys and chickens, while loons are in the evolutionary lineage that includes herons, cormorants and penguins. The superficial similarity in appearance between loons and ducks results from evolutionary convergence, not common ancestry. In my view, the distant relationship between loons and goldeneyes is yet one more reason to marvel at the odd parent-offspring bond that has formed here — and hope that it leads to a good outcome.

 

Mina caught the tail end of the battle. By the time he arrived for his observations, the territorial male on Blue-Southeast was on his heels. No doubt shell-shocked from a beating he had received from an aggressive four-year-old male that had lurked in the neighborhood for two years and was making a play for territory ownership, the territorial male beat a hasty retreat, actually flying off of the lake with another intruder.

The strategic retreat of the territorial male left his mate in dire straits. Without another parent to engage intruders, the female alone had to defend the week-old chick from the aggressive onslaught of the four-year-old male. The situation was hopeless, the suspense only fleeting. The young male quickly discovered the chick and — in the grisliest moment we have observed while studying loons — snatched the chick out of the water and carried it for a time while pursuing the retreating female. When he dropped the lifeless youngster, it was over.

When the shock wears off, we will one burning question about this episode: “Why is Blue-Southeast the site of such frequent territorial controversy?” Can it be coincidence? One must never be hasty to rule out chance, but I think that is not the explanation here. Rather, evictions of the territorial male in 2015 and the same individual again this year resulted from his relatively poor fighting ability. Intruding loons are adept at sniffing out weakness in territorial residents. When a breeding male or female is unable to drive competitors forcefully off of the lake, intruders congregate, leading to further confusion and attempted evictions, in a disheartening positive feedback cycle. The Blue-Southeast male, while a capable parent, has often encountered intruding males that he could not drive off of the territory in years past. It is quite possible that his troubles in 2015 occasioned more territorial challenges in 2016 by the same set of challengers.

I am by nature a rather negative person, always quick to point out the downside of every cheery situation. But I see one bright spot here. If the usurper of the territory and killer of the chick becomes the territorial male, he would appear to be a strong and aggressive individual and one likely to defend the territory with greater success than his predecessor. This 2012-hatched product of nearby Bolger Lake would be a record-setter too, since he would be the youngest male ever documented to seize a territory by force. (Most young males, like very old males, settle on vacant territories rather than fighting their way onto occupied ones.) I wish I could offer more meaningful solace to Blue Lake residents, who will be dismayed at today’s turn of events. The best I can do is to suggest that the future for the Blue-Southeast pair is likely to be brighter than the recent past.