In a recent post, I described how the popularity of loons and the willingness of many folks to pontificate about them without solid data or thoughtful scientific analysis makes loons unique. I tried to point out that this practice can be harmful, if we make misleading statements about loon conservation at a time when some loon populations are declining.

Now, let me give an example. Millions of state and federal dollars have been spent in recent decades in attempting to measure the effect of methylmercury (the toxic form of mercury) on wild animals, especially birds. Without a doubt, more funds have been spent analyzing mercury impacts on loons than on any other aspect of loon biology. What have we learned from this body of work? The major take-homes are that: 1) mercury certainly can affect behavior and survival of adult loons and chicks if it occurs in a high enough concentration in their tissues, 2) high mercury levels tend to occur mainly in loons living on small, acidic lakes, which have negative effects on loons that have nothing to do with mercury, and 3) harmful concentrations of mercury do not occur in most geographic areas within the breeding range. In short, despite an abundance of research and the expenditure of millions of research dollars across three decades, we have no direct evidence that mercury negatively impacts loon populations. In fact, the consensus among loon scientists is that mercury probably has little or no negative impact on most populations.

The situation is dramatically different with lead. Careful analysis of loon carcasses in New England has shown us that lead is quite deadly and affects a great many loons. (The featured photo above shows a deadly lead sinker in the stomach of a loon that died a few days ago in Wisconsin. Photo by Wild Instincts.) In a 2017 study, Grade et al. determined that a whopping 48.6% of the loons they examined had been killed by lead sinkers and lures. The authors estimated that this mortality rate had reduced the New Hampshire loon population by 43%.

The contrast between mercury and lead is stark. Mercury might affect loon survival and breeding success slightly in a few isolated populations. Lead has been shown to cause half of all loon deaths in one state and to make an enormous dent in the loon population of that state.

The contrast between these two toxins goes further. Mercury exposure is pushed to high levels mainly through burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil, which contain mercury. So reducing loons’ exposure to mercury requires a long-term effort to reduce burning of fossil fuels over a large geographic area. In contrast, loons are exposed to lead through our use of lead sinkers and fishing lures. The remedy for lead-related loon deaths is simply to implement use of lead-free fishing tackle in lakes where loons breed. (Steel, tin, and tungsten are common alternatives). Indeed, lead bans are now in place across New England.

Here is the problem. Despite the lack of evidence that mercury affects loons in nature, mercury has become the “go-to” environmental toxin mentioned by many loon researchers. Mercury has become such a prevalent scapegoat in grants, reports, and even published papers that many of us are not keeping its limited impact on loons in proper perspective. A clear-headed, candid, objective review by a loon researcher with a strong background in mercury toxicity would do wonders for loon conservation. At a time when studies have just reported long-term declines in two loon populations, those of us trying to conserve loons would do well to focus our attention on the real enemy.

We have been out all night for the past week capturing and marking adult loons and chicks. It is tiring work. Last night, for example, we had to carry our 14 foot motorboat off of a highway shoulder and into Sunday Lake. Next, we hefted it down a long flight of steep stairs, out a long narrow dock and into a marsh to reach the Minocqua-Huber Bay territory. My back still aches! But these visits were productive. In both cases, we captured a male hatched in the study area, his unmarked mate, and their two chicks. So our strenuous efforts were rewarded. (The Sunday male is a fifteen-year-old who was hatched on Seventeen Lake; the Minocqua male is only six and was reared on Brandy Lake.)

Our third lake of the night has a public landing. It was a breeze to back the trailer up and slide the boat into the weedy, pike-rich waters of Little Bearskin Lake. For a change, we were not sweating profusely and breathing hard as we began our improbable search for the pair and their young. However, we were not prepared for what we discovered.

The visit began routinely. We motored slowly to the middle of the lake to listen for the birds, as we often do. Within a minute, a bird wailed in the southeast corner. We were thrilled, because we seemed to have found the family quickly. The loon that had called was, in fact, only the female from the pair, who had wandered off separately from the male and chicks. Nevertheless, she responded strongly to our chick calls and was easy to scoop out of the water. As we removed her from the capture net, we were alarmed to find that she had a fishing lure and monofilament line wrapped tightly around her left leg.

Fishing line is unkind to wildlife. The very properties that make it attractive to anglers — its strength and thinness — give fishing line the ability to cut deeply and mercilessly into the flesh of animals unfortunate enough to become entangled in it. As the photo above shows, the female’s left leg was tightly wrapped, and a lure and hook had become attached to her leg.

Linda was able to cut away the line that had pierced the scaly, keratinized outer layer of the female’s left leg (see video below) and remove the attached lure. We are concerned about the raw tissue that was exposed by this piercing, but Linda applied antibacterial ointment, and we are hopeful that she will recover.

An injury to any loon is painful, but this one was doubly so. This mother of two chicks is the second oldest loon in our study area. She is at least 31 years old! First marked in 1996 on West Horsehead, she raised 19 chicks with three different males on that lake but was evicted in 2018 and fell off of our radar. We were delighted to see that she had resettled on the very productive Little Bearskin territory this spring with the 18 year-old male there. The two healthy chicks she has raised with him provide further evidence that females retain the ability to produce young during their later years.

But we worry. At 3500 grams, she is 250 grams or so lighter than when we captured her several years ago. This, the fact that she had left the male to care for the chicks last night, and the odd not-quite-wails that she uttered after we released her might indicate that she has been compromised by this angling injury.

In fact, she and we were extraordinarily lucky. Most “off-chick” adults — those not tending their chicks — are difficult to find at night and capture. Only the fact that we stumbled into her before we found the male and chicks allowed us to catch her, free her from the tightly-wrapped fishing line, and treat her injured leg. Now, at least, she has a fighting chance to resume her parental responsibilities, regain lost weight, return to her Florida winter quarters — and perhaps return again in 2022.

Three days ago, Allison and I had only one car, so we covered a double circuit of lakes. We loaded two solo canoes precariously on top of our ’07 Toyota Corolla — “That seems safe”, I said, tugging on one of the straps we had used to lash the boats to the roof rack and smiling reassuringly at my dubious daughter — and headed to a northern tier of lakes. I dropped her and her canoe at Brandy, and scurried across Highway 51 to Arrowhead. An hour and half later I covered Kawaguesaga-North, while she observed at Bullhead, and so forth throughout the day. It was tiring, and Allison inevitably had to wait ten minutes or so for me to drive back from my lake to hers, but we visited four sets of lakes this way. Covering many lakes with limited personnel is central to the ethos of the Loon Project, and I was delighted to walk the walk on Sunday.

While our highly fuel-efficient observations on our last day in the field were very cool, the portrait of reproductive success that emerged from the lakes I visited was decidedly ambiguous. The Hodstradt pair has two thriving, five-week-old chicks. During my visit, the ten-year-old female (hatched on Butternut Lake in Forest County) was struggling to provide enough food for her large family. The alpha chick begged her mercilessly and received 14 feedings. In contrast, the beta chick, which only got two food items, was on the receiving end of three harsh pecks from his larger sibling. Still, Hodstradt has a history of producing two-chick broods, so they appear to stand a good chance of fledging both young. 

In contrast to the thriving family at Hodstradt, the Arrowhead breeding pair has been impacted heavily by a wing injury to the male. Even as I began to pull the canoe off of the Loonmobile, I saw a large loon preening awkwardly forty meters off the Arrowhead boat landing. “Uh-oh”, I thought. The telltale drooping of his right wing revealed the male’s identity long before I observed his plastic leg bands. He was alert and responsive to his environment, but he looked worse than ten days before, when we had captured him at night and inspected his injured right wing. I sighed and shook my head; we had hoped he would recover and rejoin his mate and chicks. As I took note of his struggle to preen without stretching his damaged wing, his sodden plumage (which occurs when loons fail to cover themselves with protective oil from a special gland near their tail), and his willingness to permit a fisherman to drift to within ten meters, a grim realization hit me. This male is going downhill rapidly and is not going to recover. (Marge Gibson, a veterinarian with REGI, has inspected a series of photos taken by Linda, and is confident that the right wing is broken — probably at the humerus — an injury she has seen often after severe blunt-force trauma such as a strike by a motorboat or jetski.) Despite the male’s injury, I wondered why he was confining himself to the small, protected cove off of the boat ramp, instead of remaining in the main body of the lake.

I quickly learned why the wounded male was hiding. A pair of loons rested confidently on the southwestern end of the main bay. Unlike the injured bird, these two sat up high on the lake surface. A short time later, they foraged in plain view in the middle of the lake. In other words, they acted like they owned the place. Clearly the male had taken refuge in a protected cove in order to hide from these two new adults that, in the absence of territory defense, had laid claim to the lake. Indeed, the new pair swam east to the mouth of the male’s cove as I observed them, as if hunting an intruder they wished to drive from the lake. I was relieved that neither pair member gave any sign that they detected the injured male in the cove. Somehow — either by diving often, hiding under a dock, or perhaps pulling himself up onto the shore — he eluded them and spared himself their attacks.

The wounded male was not the only loon systematically avoiding the new breeding pair at Arrowhead. As I patrolled the shoreline of the lake, I found his mate foraging madly for one of their two chicks in the northeastern section. Though her territory has slipped away because of her mate’s and her own inability to defend it, the female has been unwilling to desert her seven-week-old chicks. In order to avoid the watchful eyes of the new pair, she and the banded chick I found her with always remained within ten meters of shore and foraged among a stretch of long docks that jut out from the northeastern shoreline. As my video above shows, the chick begged his mother relentlessly for food, while she captured what few small fishes and insect larvae she could find along this sandy stretch. This brief set of observations provided a window onto the female’s plight. In order to fledge her two chicks, she must provision them surreptitiously for at least another month, wait for them to learn to fly, and then hope that they can move to nearby undefended lakes (which chicks naturally do at this age), where they can complete the growth process. The series of practice runs, aborted takeoffs, and awkward landings necessary for a chick to become adept at flight are sure to draw the attention of and aggression from the new breeding pair. If, by some quirk or miracle, the female manages to keep the chicks safe and healthy until they can fly, she will be the first adult we have ever seen to lose her mate when the chicks were younger than five weeks, have a new breeding pair take possession of the territory, yet still manage to fledge them. As much as I respect her determination, I do not like her odds.  

After my report of continued decline of the former breeding male from three days ago, Linda and Kevin Grenzer visited Arrowhead yesterday. They found the same cast of characters that I had seen two days before — the skulking, incapacitated male, the confident new pair, the plucky old female, and the banded chick that she had been feeding — but, incredibly, Linda also turned up the unbanded chick that we had not seen on two previous visits and had given up for dead. In fact, Linda got a series of photos of this chick as it followed its wounded father onto shore (see featured photo at top). It is touching to observe the chick’s dilemma — sitting awkwardly and reluctantly on land, yet refusing to abandon its fading father. I guess if we are looking for a positive from the recent events at Arrowhead, it is that the family is doggedly sticking together in the wake of a gut-wrenching calamity. 

The prospect that someone would feed a loon seems outrageous on three counts. First, how could a person get close enough to a loon to offer it food? Second, how many of us have small live fish in our pockets to offer? Third, we are talking about a loon, for Pete’s sake! Who would treat such a magnificent bird like a pond duck?

On second thought, I get it. People love loons. They wish to see them up close and to help them in any way they can. On its face, feeding a loon seems like a positive act. By offering fish to a loon, folks must think that they are doing their part to conserve this iconic species. At least, that is my most charitable take on the feeding of loons.

As it turns out, many loons readily accept food from humans. In fact, some loons abruptly change from being fiercely independent animals that are contemptuous of humans to shockingly needy creatures that have dropped all pretense of wildness and live only for their next handout. Linda’s photo shows a typical scenario. Here, the female waits expectantly near a human on shore. Though this human clearly has no intention of offering food, the female is so thoroughly trained to take food from humans that she does not distinguish between humans with food and those without.

Linda’s photo also highlights the particular danger that feedings can pose if they involve loon parents. If a chick’s parent is taking food from humans, the chick itself will observe this behavior and is likely to imitate it. At a time in its life when a young loon must become an efficient forager, build its flight muscles, and survive its southward migration in November, a dependency on humans is most unhelpful.

It is easy to tell if a loon is being fed by people. The video below shows such a loon. As soon as I came within view, this bird made a beeline for my canoe, and it stayed with me for several minutes. Each time I happened to move my arms rapidly, it became alert, expecting that I was about to toss a fish for it to catch.

What’s the harm, you might ask? People who feed fish to loons are providing more food to them and are possibly helping them to survive. As a scientist, I must admit that measuring any impact of human feeding of loons is difficult, and we must accept that human-provided food could help loons in the short term. But consider this: a fed loon is a loon that routinely approaches humans closely. While most of us love loons and would not dream of hurting them, not all humans feel this way. A small number of people might harm a loon that approaches closely enough to accept a fish from them. More important, loons that stay close to humans and expect them to throw food are more likely than other loons to chase fishing lures or live bait and get hooked.

So…..please, folks, if you see someone offering food to a loon, have the strength to approach them and explain why we must avoid this harmful practice. If necessary, get your lake association involved or report them to the local wildlife agency. If all else fails, I am happy to do what I can to contact the offending party and ask them to stop. I find that most people who feed loons are only trying to help them and have simply not stopped to consider the long-term harm they are causing.

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He doesn’t look it, but this male from Townline Lake, just outside of Rhinelander, is at least twenty-seven years old. He is among a dwindling few males from among those we banded in the mid 90s. This bird was banded in 1994, at which point he was certainly at least five years old, which means that he was hatched in 1989 or before. Thus, twenty-seven is a minimum estimate for his age.

The age of “Silver over Red, Orange over Green” (as I call him affectionately) is not his only remarkable attribute. What sets this individual apart from most others is his ability to hold onto his territory year after year while fledging healthy chicks. (Below, he relaxes near his mate and two strapping chicks from 2016.) A successful common loon is not only good at locating safe nest sites and defending and feeding young. A breeder that wishes to

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reproduce successfully must confront intruders that land in the territory without warning throughout the breeding period.

Intrusions are especially frequent during the chick-rearing period. A common scenario plays out as follows. Early in the morning, a male is diving for food, while his two chicks track his progress from the surface. Each time he surfaces, the chicks rush over to him, snatch food from his grasp, and nibble relentlessly at his bill, neck and chest, signaling their unquenchable appetites. On one occasion, he surfaces holding a small yellow perch, only to find five adult loons in flight above his lake. He drops the fish, gives a short barking call, and the chicks dive and head to the nearest shore. The male too dives but surfaces near the middle of the lake, drawing the now-descending intruders to himself. Three quarters of an hour later he has driven off the intruders, thanks in part to a lunge and point yodel that caused his five visitors to scatter and tremolo. Shortly afterwards his mate returns, and both parents forage for the chicks. The family suffers no further disruptions until the evening, when another group of three nonbreeders circle and land, causing yet another brief skirmish.

Considering that a large pool of territorial intruders are constantly sizing up the resident male or female of any successful territory for an eviction attempt, it seems remarkable that residents are able to hold on to their territories for even a single year. Yet Silver over Red, Orange over Green has put together a string of 23 years of straight ownership, the only blemishes a half-year in 1996 and another in 2003, when he was briefly deposed. He has fledged 20 chicks during his breeding career with four different mates. This male is not the only resident with an impressive resume. A female on nearby Langley has fledged 17 chicks on that territory since 1995, while the O’Day female has been on territory since at least 1997 and has produced at least 16 full-grown chicks during her breeding career.

But female loons are survivors. Females enjoy a high rate of survival and no detectable senescence well into their twenties. Males, on the other hand, hit the wall abruptly at age 20; almost half of all territorial males of age 20 will perish before the subsequent year. So when we see a male who defies the odds, like this one, it is worth looking closely to see if he possesses an attribute that sets him apart. As a scientist, I am loathe to draw conclusions based on a sample of one. Colleagues in my field would dismiss any such conclusions out of hand. But today Nelson, one of my Chapman research students this year, reported that Silver over Red, Orange over Green is the tamest bird we have ever measured in the study area. So let me invite ridicule by advancing a very preliminary hypothesis. Perhaps the key to lifetime productivity in a habitat rife with human recreation is picking one’s battles carefully. Maybe by ignoring the inquisitive, well-meaning primates in their watercraft, this male has been able to conserve his metabolic resources for provisioning young and driving off pesky intruders.

The goose population has been increasing in northern Wisconsin. Ten years ago, a Canada Goose was an infrequent sight on one of our study lakes. Geese were confined chiefly to a few large lakes and seen overhead only as they migrated northwards. But no more. Now we encounter adult geese and often pairs with goslings on about half of our study lakes.

Apparently the increased availability of waste grain from agriculture, the proliferation of lawns, and increased temperatures have fueled the explosion in goose numbers, which has the potential to impact loon reproductive success. You see, geese and loons both prefer nesting sites safe from mammalian egg predators like raccoons and foxes. Such sites are often on islands and are limited in number. If a small island offers the only available safe nesting on a lake, goose and loon pairs are both likely gravitate to it.

The problem is not merely that loons must now compete with geese for nesting sites; geese actually get “first dibs”. While both loons and geese incubate their clutches for about four weeks, geese initiate their clutches two weeks or so in advance of loons. (The earlier onset of goose nesting is evident right now in our study area, as many goose pairs are rearing their broods of two to six goslings, while the earliest loon nests will not hatch for another week or ten days.) On occasion geese and loons nest within a few meters of each other on islands — as we observed on Oneida Lake a few years ago. Coexistence between the species is possible. But the presence of a sitting goose appears to discourage loons from nesting nearby, which often forces loon pairs to select sub-optimal sites for incubation.

Consider the plight of the Clear Lake loon pair. The safest, most desirable nest location on Clear Lake is a small shrubby island off of the public boat landing. Loons have shown a strong preference to nest on this island during most years. This year, the geese got their first, and the loons had to settle for a new nesting location on a long peninsula about two kilometers south. They may hatch chicks off of this peninsula, but the site is not offshore, like the shrubby island, so it is clearly vulnerable to mammalian egg predators.

I am optimistic that this spunky loon pair will be able to pull off a hatch. As can be seen from our shaky video, the male (on the right in the video) is still working on improving the surrounding nesting area, and the pair has a well-constructed nest with two eggs (visible to the left of the female, after the camera pans left). Still, this well-constructed nest will not protect them from a scavenging raccoon that ambles by.

 

 

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I have been back in California for some months now, my research in Wisconsin a distant memory. A stroll to the end of the pier at Newport Beach changed that. Several of my study species — unbanded animals that probably belong to breeding populations from Alaska, British Columbia, or Alberta — were foraging contentedly off the pier’s end, as fishermen cast their lines all about them. The fishermen appeared to avoid casting near loons, so I was not alarmed by what I saw. Loons are usually adept at avoiding fishing lines (though not always). Furthermore, an ecologist would not be surprised to see loons sharing a fishing hole with anglers, since they are competitors for the same small fish — mostly smelt and mackerel.

Common loons were not the only species diving and pursuing small fishes among the sea lions and occasional pod of common dolphins. It was a treat to find this juvenile red-throated loon out in the waves as well.

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Back home in Irvine I am crunching data, as I do habitually in the off-season. I feel some urgency at the moment, as I am about a week away from having to give a talk on my findings at the Winter Animal Behavior Conference in Colorado.  I will be more positive in a week or so, but I have already confirmed senescence in two different respects. First territorial common loons older than 20 abruptly begin to show much higher year-to-year mortality (roughly 20% annual mortality from 20 on; only 6% mortality up to 20 years). Second, territory holders 20 and older also stand a much greater chance of losing their territory through eviction (again a 20% rate of loss) than do those younger than 20 (12% rate of loss). In the coming days I will explore whether the sexes differ in these respects and whether old territory holders make any behavioral adjustments to this apparent decline in health and fighting ability.

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It is human to overgeneralize based on the chance co-occurrence of rare events.  As a scientist, I know this. I spend a good deal of my research time sorting through quantitative patterns in data, fending off the tendency to infer a meaningful biological pattern where only chance trends are present.

And yet, the events at Alva Lake last night shocked me. The Toussaints, dear friends who live on the lake and kept me alive during my first year of loon research in 1993, had informed me before my team attempted capture of the breeding pair and their month-old chick that the male had been holding his leg strangely, as if injured. My crew had reported no abnormal behavior of the pair; indeed, I had seen only normal territorial and parental behavior when I had scouted the lake for capture at noon. Still, the Toussaints are careful observers of loons, so their statement gave me concern. I told them as we cast off from the dock that we would try harder than usual to catch the male, just in case.

Capture was swift and uneventful. Both pair members sat protectively on the lake’s surface as we approached slowly and scooped them into our net. After catching the chick as well, we headed back to the dock feeling good about ourselves. Not until we inspected the female’s legs on shore did we detect anything amiss. As the photo shows, the female’s left leg was encircled tightly just above the foot by Dacron fishing line (used commonly in Wisconsin for muskie fishing), and a 5cm-long thick snarl dragged behind. The line had become tight enough to bite into the leg and cause a painful wound. Taking great care not to worsen the wound, we cut through the super-strong line and removed it. Fortunately, the entanglement appears to be recent, the wound superficial. The female should recover fully within a week.

Surrounded by three generations of Toussaints and still jittery from seeing the female’s leg, we were ill-prepared for the sight of another, more severe injury on the male. In this case, monofilament line had become wrapped around the leg just below the ankle joint. Again the line was constricted tightly around the leg, but this entanglement had occurred many months ago and the skin and keratinized scales of the loon’s legs had overgrown and surrounded the monofilament strands, leaving the circle of line protruding to the outside via two holes in the skin, like an earring. Though absorbed and surrounded by leg tissue, the line had caused local inflammation, as revealed by the irregular swelling in the adjacent portion of the leg. After an emergency consult with Mark Naniot of Wild Instincts, we resolved to pull out the line if we could do so without doing further harm to the bird. Fortunately, once cut, the line slid easily out of the holes, revealing infection but an injury from which the bird should recover.

Shaken as I am by seeing back to back angling-related wounds, I chalk up the discovery of two such similar injuries within a mated pair mostly to chance. That is, there is no reason to suppose a sudden, devastating impact of fishing line on the health of common loons. After all, we have captured dozens of other loons this summer that showed no ill effects from having lived in waters plied constantly by all manner of fishing lines, lures, baits, bobbers, and sinkers and riddled with tangles of line left behind by grouchy anglers. All but a few loons we have seen have thrived for many years in Wisconsin waters, despite this piscatory onslaught.

So what can we learn from the events of last night on Alva Lake? Two lessons, I think. First, loons are tough. Designed for maximum strength and minimum thickness, fishing lines bite deeply into animal tissue when forced against it. The Alva pair, no doubt, experienced severe discomfort and some loss of circulation. Yet they completed two months of incubation, chick-rearing, and territorial defense and stand to survive their brushes with fishing line without permanent damage. Second, angling exacts a steady toll on loons and other wildlife. Loon populations are stable or perhaps even increasing slightly in northern Wisconsin. It is becoming obvious, though, that sustaining loon populations in areas where anglers are more abundant every year will require concerted efforts of those who love loons.

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Two days ago, Mark Naniot of Wild Instincts got a report that a loon on Two Sisters Lake had been hooked by a fisherman in the leg and was trailing 50 feet of monofilament line and a bobber. Mark learned also that a well-intentioned kayaker had approached the loon and cut much of the line, including the bobber, but leaving the hook and several yards of fishing line trailing. Having captured and unhooked a loon several weeks before on the same lake, we were disappointed to hear of another angling incident. Could the same bird have become entangled again?

Seth happened to be collecting data on Two Sisters Lake yesterday. He found the impacted loon, which was not the Two Sisters-West male that we had rescued in June but the female from Two Sisters-East. (The lake has east and west halves, each with a successful loon pair.) Seth reported that the female was using her right leg sparingly, trailing fishing line, and had tried but failed to take off and fly on several occasions. She was not with her mate and two young chicks. Clearly the bird was in trouble.

After digesting Mark and Seth’s reports, I turned my attention to the prospect of catching the impacted loon. I viewed the challenge with mixed feelings. On the one hand, this female, hatched on Crab Lake in Vilas County in 2004, was well-known to us as a rather tame individual, making capture more feasible. On the other hand, we had captured her four nights earlier, which raised the possibility that she would recall that event and be more difficult to approach a second time. The most crucial card we held was that the female had chicks to protect.

Several major research programs that focus on common loons in the northern U.S. and Canada rely, more than any other factor, on the ability to approach adult loons closely at night and net them when they have chicks. If researchers could not approach adults closely during this reproductive window, we would not be able to mark them and study their behavior, health or survival. We would therefore be unable to generate models to determine whether loon populations are increasing or decreasing. In short, loon research would grind to a halt without the presence of chicks to freeze adults on the surface and permit us to catch and mark them.

Last night’s adventure served as a vivid reminder of the value of chicks to adult capture. We began searching for the hooked female shortly after nine p.m. and located her quickly along the southwest corner of the lake’s eastern half. Her behavior was odd; she seemed to restrict her movements to one small portion of the lake and was not anywhere near her mate or two large chicks. She held her hooked leg out of the water when resting on the surface. Before full darkness, we spotlighted and approached her to attempt capture, but she repeatedly dove before we could get within a net’s reach. Although frustrating, this cheered us a bit, because it showed that she was still relatively healthy despite the hook. At the same time, we were vexed to see that a loon that was in dire need of human assistance and which we had scooped out of the water with ease four nights before was resisting capture. We made several more passes by the female, until it became clear that the distance at which she dove was increasing rather than decreasing. We had a loon in need of help, a huge staff from Wild Instincts on shore waiting to assist it, and no obvious means of catching the bird. The critical ingredient missing was her chicks, which were nowhere nearby and which, we felt, might have held her on the surface and permitted us to net her.

We shut down the motor and listened. As luck would have it, an adult loon tremoloed far to the northwest, near the small bay where the Two Sisters-East pair had nested. Eric drove us up to the northwest corner, where, after 20 minutes of searching, we located the male and two chicks. Freshly banded from four nights before, the male and two strapping youngsters were nonetheless easy to net and pull into the boat. We set out southwards, where we had left the recalcitrant female, and released all three birds there. After several minutes of silence, the just-released male finally wailed and an answering tremolo came from 400 yards southeast. Again, we were in a bind, because the female had clearly swum a good distance away, where she would not soon encounter the chicks that we had released in hopes of capturing her. So again we netted a chick — leaving one near the male — and motored southeast to where we had heard the female. Having glimpsed the female for an instant before she dove, we gently held the chick in the boat until it vocalized. The injured female was transformed: she immediately sat up in the water, alert, and wailed to call her chick to her. We released the chick, the two reunited, and the female remained alert and protective next to her chick as we slowly approached and netted her.

After all of our efforts, it was rewarding to learn that, while the hook had punched cleanly through the female’s leg a few centimeters above her colored leg bands (see photo, courtesy of Wild Instincts), the prognosis (according to Mark) was excellent for recovery.

Looking back, we spent three hours capturing a family of loons that we had just caught and banded four days earlier. The rescue was a major production, requiring us not merely to locate and capture her but to find and capture her family in a remote location on the lake and transport them to her vicinity in order to restore her parental instincts and permit us to approach and net the impacted loon. This effort threw a wrench in our capture schedule, necessitating that we rush to three more lakes to capture loons there and cancel plans to attempt capture at two more lakes. Still, our team effort with Wild Instincts left us glowing; we had rescued a loon in peril and given her a chance to return to her life as a plucky protector of two young offspring.