History is afoot on Muskellunge Lake. A two-year-old male is making a play for a high-quality territory….which is pretty shocking.
Let me put this into perspective. Only about a quarter of all two-year-old loons even bother to return to the nesting grounds. The vast majority of all loons of this young age from eastern and midwestern breeding populations are cooling their heels in the Atlantic right now. Some are off of the Carolinas; some New Brunswick. The bulk of all two-year-olds play the long game: they retain the drab grey-brown winter plumage throughout their first two years, stay healthy on a saltwater diet, and postpone any thought of breeding until they acquire sufficient body mass to compete for a territory in their fourth or fifth year.
We have never observed a two-year-old adult male or female settle on a territory. Indeed, we have only once observed a loon as young as three claim a territory — and that was very late in the season and in a vacant space without competitors. (His mate, sad to say, was his mother.)
As territorial intruders, two- and three-year-old adults are nervous Nellies. They sit low in the water while circling with territorial pairs and are deathly afraid of underwater attack. They peer (look under water) and panic dive obsessively. When anxiety overwhelms them, they freak out and flee across the water tremoloing. In short, two- and three-year-olds do not appear emotionally equipped for territory ownership.
But “Junior”– as Linda calls the two-year-old that has settled on Muskellunge — threw out the book on reproductive maturation. When the 12-year-old male that took over on Muskellunge this year became injured in early June after a failed nesting attempt, Junior took possession of the lake and began defending it vociferously with territorial yodels (as you can see in Linda’s photo, above).
For a time, it seemed that Junior would ease into lake ownership without a battle. Yet news that Muskellunge Lake was up for grabs spread fast in the neighborhood, and the last two weeks have seen multiple local males vie for control. One of these males, from nearby Deer Lake, has tried to claim Muskellunge before and is renewing his bid. A second male, this a ten-year-old reared on neighboring Clear Lake, seemed settled on Harrison Flowage last year but is apparently looking to upgrade.
Junior’s age is not all that makes his story unusual. He is also the only young adult (out of 211 observed so far) that we have ever observed to compete for ownership of his own natal territory. In this he is fortunate; the current breeding female on the lake, who will probably pair with the victorious male, is not Junior’s mother, but instead a female that took possession of Muskellunge last year.
According to Linda’s reports, Muskellunge remains in an uproar. One day Junior is in control and paired with the resident female (or the Bridge Lake female, whose mate did not return this spring). The next day the Deer male has taken ownership and patrols the lake, searching for Junior, who evades him.
Linda and I are trying to celebrate the oddity of a two-year-old territory owner and not overthink it. But it is difficult to sit back and pretend to be neutral. After all, Junior got his name because he is the son of Clune, the beloved male who settled on Muskellunge in 2009, cranked out 14 chicks during 14 years of territory ownership, and never uttered a discouraging word for canoe nor kayak.
And it is hard not to wonder how a loon as young as Junior even got a shot at such a good territory. Is his territorial gambit an anomaly — a one-time peculiarity that you are bound to observe once if you study a loon population for 31 years? Or must we interpret his premature, longshot bid for territory ownership as yet another indication of the depleted ranks of young nonterritorial loons that epitomize population decline in the region?