I awaken bleary-eyed after two hours of deep sleep and three hours of tossing and turning. It is time to get up, grab a banana and coffee, choke down my usual peanut butter sandwich, and face the day. I wrap a flannel shirt around my waist — smiling as I recall how my daughter would tsk-tsk at the sight of me — and walk unsteadily down from my fleabag motel in Breezy Point to the convenience store/gas station at the highway intersection where I eat my meals. My whole body aches from lifting and carrying two motorboats in and out of small lakes. My knees are skinned and bruised from squatting for hours on metal boat seats. My hands bear dozens of small nicks and cuts — this one from the Nelson Lake female, this one from the Pelican-Breezy Point chick, this one from nipping myself with needle-nose pliers when closing a steel band on the Star Lake male. My nails are thickly encrusted with the plastic glue we use to seal the bands.
Exhausted and beaten up as I am, I become obsessed with not making a mistake on my trip home. “Don’t forget the blood drops and feather samples. Don’t forget to return the motel room key. Don’t run into a curb and damage the rental car. Don’t leave your laptop in the trunk at the Brainerd Airport. Don’t lose your boarding pass. Don’t forget to text Linda and ask if she can help Molly stow the Loonmobile in Wisconsin.”
I make it to the Brainerd Airport. The Delta ticket agent kindly and somewhat inexplicably checks both of my bulky suitcases for free (!). My Pre-Check status does not show on the boarding passes he prints out for me, though, so I am forced to wait in the security line as passenger after passenger is guided through ahead of me. But at last I am in my seat on the plane. The hardest part of this travel day is over.
At brief moments, I reflect on the past three weeks of loon capture. While most teams have fixed roles for each team member — e.g. Martha runs the motorboat, Steve spotlights the loons, Kevin handles the netting, Emma prepares the bands and data sheet on shore — we use a “musical chairs” model, so that each intern gets a chance to play each role. (The exception is netting, which is tricky to learn and which would cost us many captures during the learning process.) Because of our quirky approach, I as netter am working with a different spot-lighter and different motorboat operator on each lake. This means that I am constantly coaching, constantly adjusting to different spotlighting and boating styles, and all the while just hoping to catch the birds. “Keep the light right in his eyes!”, I whisper. “Lean way forward so that you don’t spotlight the bow!” “Angle the light higher on the water so we can see the loon if it surfaces at a distance!” “Quickly and broadly”, I bleat, after a loon dives right next to the boat, because such a bird could resurface in any direction but will likely be close at hand and easy to see when it does so. “Stay on him!” I cry, helpfully, when a chick dives and swims away but remains within a foot of the surface so that we can track it and pounce when it comes up. Our odds of capture seem long for each loon we spot. Yet somehow, despite our inefficient and high-stress rotation of roles, we manage to catch most of the loons we find. The interns, I learn again this year, pick up each role quickly. They and I are pleased by their rapid improvement. I hope they forgive my occasional impatience during the hunt for each loon. I tell them, “Great work, everybody!” and give an occasional fist bump, when we net a particularly evasive individual. Considering the steep learning curve, they do an amazing job.
In fact, capture went well in both Wisconsin and Minnesota. In large part because of the generous help of Kevin Kenow and his USGS banding crew that spent six nights out, we caught and banded more loons in 2022 than we have in any other year: 94 individuals in Wisconsin and 95 in Minnesota. (Kudos and thanks also to Mike of the National Loon Center and Terri and Richard, NLC volunteers.) We collected crucial mass data from our loons in both states. Comparison of these masses with past years — and with water clarity data from Landsat satellites — might be enough to tell us if Minnesota loons, like Wisconsin loons, have suffered weight losses over the past quarter century owing to declines in lake clarity related to increased rainfall.
We have now caught enough loons in north-central Minnesota that our Minnesota Study Area has taken shape. It includes Nisswa and Pequot Lakes to the southwest, the Whitefish Chain to the north, extends in a northeasterly direction to Outing and Emily, and ends at about the hamlet of Mission to the southeast. In all, the new Minnesota study area comprises some 110 territories. These territories will be those we use to gauge the status of the loon population in north-central Minnesota. These territories will tell us whether Minnesota loons face the same dangers that loons in northern Wisconsin do. I have seen enough similarities between my two study areas that I am concerned. But we must wait to see what the data show.
So as I scrape glue off my nails, rub my sore knees, inspect the healing lacerations on my hands and forearms, and take deep breaths to try to clear my fuzzy brain, I smile. We did well this year. We are well on the road towards assessing the status of loons across the Upper Midwest. And I love my job.