Linda began to worry on April 18th when “Lucy” — the female from Muskellunge Lake whom we banded last year — showed up in a patch of open water with two other loons from the neighborhood. Male loons usually arrive a few days before females. Clune, the most famous loon in our study area, resident on Muskellunge since 2008, and Lucy’s mate, should have been back. Linda’s careful records show that Clune has appeared on Muskellunge before his mate in every year during the past 10 years except 2020, when his mate showed up two days before him.
It’s funny how, even as a scientist, I became attached to Clune. I remember encountering him back on Manson Lake in 1998. As his parents fished together in one cove near the boat landing, 4-week-old Clune and his sister dove together in a nearby cove. I tried to stay in contact with adults and chicks without approaching either pair too closely, but the chicks kept surfacing near my canoe and on the opposite side from their parents. On each such occasion, I paddled rapidly away and towards the lake’s center to restore the parent-offspring sightline. But neither parents nor chicks panicked, as I did, when my canoe split them. My canoe and I inspired the same degree of alarm as boulders, piers, and patches of vegetation.
Clune was precocious. He first appeared back in the study area as a two-year-old intruder on Hancock Lake. He wandered around for the next few years, as nonterritorial adults do. In 2003, he settled on Deer Lake, only 3 miles from Manson, where he had been raised. He and his mate produced chicks in 2003, 2004, and 2005 on Deer. Two of his sons from this period have followed in his illustrious webbed footsteps: one is the long-time breeder on tiny Virgin Lake; the other has cranked out offspring since 2014 as the territorial male on Squash Lake-Southeast.
Although we did not know it at the time, Clune’s breeding success on Deer was merely a prelude. Indeed, Clune and his second mate hit a slump on Deer from 2006 to 2008, failing to hatch a single egg. And so, as loons often do in the prime of life, Clune turned his attention to nearby alternatives. Muskellunge Lake was a chick-producer during the three years of Clune’s slump. Thus, in mid-June of 2008, Clune intruded into Muskellunge, battled the male territory owner, drove him off the lake, and settled on Muskellunge with the resident female.
Yet Clune seemed ambivalent about leaving Deer, where he had produced several chicks, and occupying his valuable new territory on Muskellunge. He faced an embarrassment of riches, it seemed. For three years, Clune and his mate bounced between Deer and Muskellunge. And Clune’s breeding slump stretched to five years.
At long last in 2011, Clune and a new female (“Honey”, as Linda came to call her) reared two chicks on Muskellunge. It was no fluke. The chicks of 2011 began one of the most impressive runs of breeding success we have ever seen in northern Wisconsin. Between 2011 and 2021, Clune and Honey hatched chicks in every single year and raised 13 chicks to adulthood. (Clune added a 14th chick in 2022 with a new mate, Lucy.)
What set Clune and Honey apart from other pairs was their dogged determination as incubators. 2011, 2014, 2017, 2019, and 2020 were years during which 27% to 90% of all loon pairs in northern Wisconsin abandoned their May nests owing to severe black fly infestations. Clune and Honey sat tight throughout these dreadful years, tolerating hours of motionless incubation while flies sucked their blood at will. They did not abandon a single nest. Consider this feat for a moment. Both pair members must be committed to warm the eggs for several hours at a stretch in order for a nesting attempt to succeed. While loon pairs throughout the study area abandoned their nests and hatched few chicks for a decade, Clune and Honey thrived.
Despite his sterling breeding record, it is Clune’s affability that I will miss the most. He seemed to sense that humans in canoes and kayaks meant him no harm. Perhaps he even got to know Linda and me, since he had seen us so often throughout his life. It certainly seemed so at night when he hardly budged as we gently threw a net beneath him each year, lifted him out of the water, weighed him, and replaced his worn bands.
There is a new male on Muskellunge this year. (See Linda’s featured photo of him yodeling, above.) He is “Yellow over Copper, Red-stripe over Silver”, a 12-year-old hatched on Prairie Lake who has lived and attempted to breed on nearby Halfmoon and Clear Lakes for the past three years. Like all males on new territories, he will probably struggle on Muskellunge to find a nest site where he and his new mate can hatch eggs. Maybe Yellow over Copper will beat the odds, take advantage of the plentiful breeding habitat on the lake, and raise a chick or two in his first year. I am keeping my fingers crossed for him. He is a fairly tame loon and a vigorous defender of his new territory. I knew his parents for many years on Prairie and have a good feeling about him. But he is not Clune.