Many lake residents and outdoorsy types in Wisconsin and Minnesota recognize white-throated sparrows from another time of year. These striking little birds sing distinctive, whistled songs in late May and June along forest edges in the Upper Midwest. Although they are more understated, the calls of white-throats typify northern boreal forests much as loons’ calls symbolize northern lakes.
White-throated sparrows live two very different lives in summer and winter. We witnessed part of the transition between these lives in North Carolina. During early May, the undisciplined hordes of sparrows we had grown accustomed to seeing broke up into smaller flocks. In mid May, they spurned the seeds we offered and fed instead on protein-rich buds they found in treetops. By late May, our sparrows had left for the north country.
The departure of our study animals left us with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it gave us a much-needed break from the daily grind of field work. On the other hand, it left a void and a puzzle. Where had our birds gone? Were they New England breeders that serenaded summer hikers in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with their plaintive calls? Or had they headed inland towards the Upper Great Lakes where they crooned to cottagers on lakes? Perhaps they had ventured to northern Ontario, Manitoba, or even the Northwest Territories. If so, they likely belted out their songs with no human around to enjoy them.
I spent many hours pondering summer destinations of our wintering sparrows. I felt — quite irrationally — that there must be some way to learn where they migrated to breed. Could some distinctive wisp of vegetation or a sticky residue from berry or insect from the breeding quarters become lodged in their feathers or stuck to the bill; survive the journey southwards; and still be detectable in North Carolina in October? Perhaps. But no researcher, to my knowledge, has ever determined the migratory origin of a small songbird by such a means. Eventually I gave up on my fanciful notion of learning where our sparrows spent the six months when they were not in our company.
Other scientists did not give up on the dream of linking breeding and wintering areas. Indeed, for a few decades now scientists have used stable isotope analysis to detect geographic movements of itinerant animals. Stable isotopes are different versions of a chemical element with different masses. For example, most hydrogen atoms (over 99.9%) occur as H-1, which has no neutron in the nucleus. But a few hydrogen atoms take the form of H-2, which possesses one neutron and weighs twice as much. Here is the key point: water droplets in rainfall in each geographic region contain a characteristic tiny percentage of H-2 (.02% in one place, .008% in another). And living things absorb water so that they too contain a ratio of H-2 to H-1 in their bodies that is distinctive to the region they inhabit.
Measurement of stable isotopes is especially useful to bird biologists because of feathers. Feathers are not living tissue. They are keratinized structures that grow from living tissue and, once formed, no longer receive a blood supply. So the stable isotope ratio within feathers does not track the current environment like that in skin, blood, or muscle. Instead, feathers are a time capsule that contains the stable isotope ratio at the time and place of their formation. When a bird grows new feathers in one place and migrates to another, its feathers retain the stable isotope signature of the molting location.
Loons grow fresh wing feathers on the wintering ground prior to migration. This means that wing feathers of breeding loons bear the isotopic signature of their winter quarters. Thus, a small wing feather we clip in July can tell us where a specific breeder spends its winters.
We have some understanding of loon migration and wintering patterns, thanks to the work of Kevin Kenow, Jim Paruk, and their co-workers. Furthermore, recoveries of banded loons have helped us sketch out the wintering range of our Wisconsin and Minnesota breeders (see map below). However, we cannot tell where any particular loon — like the territorial female on Roosevelt-Southwest — winters.
Why does it matter where a specific territorial loon spends the winter? Because we have burning questions about conservation of Wisconsin and Minnesota loons that require fine-scale understanding of migratory patterns. For example, does use of certain wintering areas lead to low survival for Upper Midwest breeders? Do poor years for adult returns in Wisconsin and Minnesota correspond to “die-offs” in specific wintering areas? Does the low annual return rate of adults in Minnesota (compared to Wisconsin) indicate unfavorable conditions in their more westerly winter range (see figure above)?
In fact, we have many more questions of this kind. To answer some, we will need ecological data from the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Coast. At the moment, however, subtle information locked within the feathers of our study animals and transported by them from wintering to breeding grounds is giving us hope that we will soon have a better understanding of common loon survival throughout the year.
Thanks to Linda Grenzer, who took the cool photo of the male from Halfmoon Lake coming in for a landing some years ago.
Many of my colleagues fear ChatGPT. They fear that students will use this new online tool based on artificial intelligence to generate papers and answer questions on homework assignments that students are meant to tackle themselves. Their fear is legitimate. Why? Because if you read ChatGPT’s answers to a range of questions, you notice something rather quickly. ChatGPT generally produces plausible, thoughtful, coherent responses. Furthermore, ChatGPT writes well — at least compared to what I see from most of my undergraduate students. In short, ChatGPT creates headaches for instructors. It is forcing us to reconsider how we evaluate our students.
On the other hand, I was excited to learn what this new AI tool would produce when asked about loon biology. I asked ChatGPT: “Do loons mate for life?”. It responded:
While common loons often return to the same breeding territories and may reunite with the same mate from the previous year, these pair bonds are not necessarily permanent. After the breeding season, loons typically migrate to coastal or open water areas for the winter, and their social behavior can be more flexible during this time. When they return to their breeding territories in the following spring, they may or may not reunite with the same mate.
Now, this is not a terrible answer. ChatGPT is correct when it suggests that loons do not mate for life. But its mention of migration is off-topic. Its point regarding “social behavior” during winter is irrelevant. Its statement that loons “may or may not reunite with the same mate [in the spring]” is grossly misleading. And ChatGPT has entirely failed to mention the chief reason why loons do not mate for life: territorial eviction.
ChatGPT’s responses to loon-related questions are similar to its answers on other topics. The program searches the web for information from which to build its responses. But because these responses draw information from countless online sources, they include the good, the bad, and the ugly. In short, ChatGPT gives you a blur of “conventional wisdom” about any topic, not rigorous and precise scientific truth. Its answers are, for the most part, uncontroversial, vague, and riddled with caveats.
I turned my attention to loon conservation. When I asked, “Are any common loon populations in trouble?”, ChatGPT came back with:
As of my last knowledge update in September 2021, the status of loon populations, particularly the Common Loon (Gavia immer) in North America, varied by region and was a subject of concern in some areas. Common Loons were classified as a species of “Least Concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to their relatively stable population at the global level.
However, it’s important to note that local and regional populations can face significant challenges, including habitat loss, water pollution, lead poisoning from ingesting fishing tackle, disturbance from boating and recreational activities, and climate change impacts on their breeding and wintering grounds. These factors could affect specific loon populations and lead to localized declines.
ChatGPT is spot on in some respects. Loons are in no trouble globally. And the status of populations varies from one region to another. But the program uncritically lists many anthropogenic factors that might harm loon populations and provides no specific information. One might infer from ChatGPT’s statement that we must solve all of the problems listed in order to preserve loons. Or perhaps loon populations face many obstacles but none is severe enough to cause serious harm. In truth, we do not know which, if any, of the listed factors might endanger loons. Furthermore, ChatGPT has failed to mention two factors — exploding black fly populations and decreased water clarity — known to harm loon populations in the Upper Midwest. If this had been a class assignment, ChatGPT would have earned a “C-“.
ChatGPT’s take on factors threatening loons sounds eerily familiar to what we loon conservationists often say. (I include myself in this group.) That is, we often settle for a ChatGPT-caliber pronouncement about loon conservation. We say or imply that if we: 1) enact a lead ban, 2) reduce human settlement on northern lakes, 3) eliminate water pollution, 4) keep boaters away from adults and chicks, and 5) halt climate change, then we can save loons. These goals, of course, range from difficult to impossible to achieve.
A ChatGPT-like approach will not save loons. We simply cannot eliminate all threats. In fact, many factors that loon conservationists perceive as threats pose little or no hazard. The best example is human recreation. While lead sinkers are a danger to loon populations because of the many breeding adults they kill each year, loons are well-equipped to handle boaters. Loons tremolo, wail, or yodel when boats are too close to them or their chicks. They penguin dance, charge, and dive noisily at boats that creep close to their nests. Humans usually interpret these warnings correctly and back away in short order. Moreover, the low rates of mortality and nest abandonment attributable to boating activity indicate that loons tolerate human interactions well.**
How do we distinguish between relatively benign environmental factors, like boating, and those that truly endanger loon populations, like black flies, lead sinkers, and water clarity? Science. Only science will save loons. If the Minnesota loon population is declining and 50% of loon deaths result from lead poisoning, the folks in Saint Paul will take notice. If Wisconsin loons fledge 40% fewer offspring nowadays than in 1995 because of lower water clarity, that will make headlines in Milwaukee. And if the fledging rate across the Upper Midwest is 30% lower owing to black fly-induced nest abandonments, that might turn apathy concerning climate change into action.***
So if you are an unprincipled student being taught by an inattentive instructor, ChatGPT might earn you a “B” on your history paper. And if you cannot get the wording right in a letter to a client or colleague, ChatGPT might provide suggestions. But we loon conservationists should resist the uncritical, shotgun approach that ChatGPT takes to addressing questions. If we are going to preserve loon populations that we treasure, we must first collect data. And then, in our communications with the public, politicians, and the media, we must highlight the specific environmental hazards that science has shown to be dangerous to loons.
* The featured photo was taken a week ago by Linda Grenzer of an adult male from Lake Winter, Wisconsin that swallowed a lead sinker. Though the sinker was surgically removed by Raptor Education Group in Antigo, the male died two days later from the lead it had already absorbed.
** I might be biased by my work in Wisconsin and Minnesota in my conclusion about loons coping with boating activity. It is conceivable that boats do cause enough nesting failure and/or chick mortality in some regions to threaten loon populations. We do not have data to show such a pattern, however. If you know of such data, please let me know.
*** I made up these three numbers. We are still collecting data on loon mortality caused by lead sinkers. Only recently have we learned about the threats of black flies and loss of water clarity. We and our partners are recording many lead-poisoned loons these days. We will publish an estimate of lead’s impact within five years. Robust estimates of the impacts of black flies and water clarity on loon populations in Wisconsin (and possibly Minnesota) should be available by sometime in 2025.
Perched on the bow of a small motorboat in the middle of the night, I sweep a spotlight back and forth across the lake’s surface. My goal is simple. Find any small item resting on the dark water that catches the light. “Buoy”, Claudia proclaims in my ear as I freeze the spotlight on one such object that, at first blush, appears to be a loon. “No”, she barks a moment later, when I find a floating clump of vegetation. But shortly afterwards, the light falls upon something small, fuzzy, and brownish that becomes more and more loonlike as we approach it. I hand the spotlight backwards over my head to her, scooch as far forward as possible on my knees, and glance at the net to confirm it is untangled. Richard slows the boat and turns towards the loon family. “Adult!”, I whisper to Claudia — needlessly, because we had already agreed that we would first attempt to catch the parents. She trains the light on the larger of two adults whose physical features become dimly visible as we pull within fifty meters. On this occasion, luck is on our side; the male and female become alert as we draw near, but neither dives. We net the male without difficulty and, shortly afterwards, the female. The chick dives once after we fix him in the light. Seconds later, attracted by my loon calls, he wheels, swims towards the boat, and dives smoothly into the net that I place in his path. We quickly text Terri so that she can prepare the bands and datasheets on shore. Twenty two minutes later we have marked and weighed all three loons, transported them back to the capture site, and released them. Then it is on to the next lake.
One’s world narrows during loon capture. In the moment, all that matters is whether we netted this or that adult or chick we wished to band. Now that the sleep deprivation and tunnel vision of the capture period has subsided — and our nips and scrapes from loon bills have mostly healed — we can look back at our achievements over the season as a whole.
Between West Fox Lake in Minnesota, where our efforts began, and Oneida Lake in Wisconsin, where we wrapped up our season, we captured and banded 134 loons this year. Terri and Richard saved us in Minnesota with their expert boat-handling and organizational skills. Emily and Danny from the Wisconsin team were essential to our capture there. A huge thank you to all team members, who made 2023 a great year.
The research landscape differs starkly between the two study areas. In Minnesota, breeding pairs on Kego, Mitchell-East, Mitchell-West, Goodrich-Southeast, O’Brien, Clamshell, Kimble-West, Margaret, Big Trout-Far West — and dozens of other territories — got bands for the first time. The return or non-return of these adults in future years will allow us to refine our estimate of adult survival in the region and build the first-ever quantitative population model for the state. Thanks to our growing list of Minnesota partners and friends, who greased the skids for our work there with donations of funds, lodging, field work, lake access, advice, information about loons on their lakes — and moral support!
All of our research findings require loon capture. Although it is not foremost in my mind at those moments when I am kneeling in the bow of a small motorboat and inspecting fuzzy brown spots on the water, our work — our ability to learn about loon populations and what ails them — depends critically upon catching loons, weighing loons, and knowing who they are.
Thanks to Barbara Krimmer of South Two Lake in Wisconsin, who took this nice photo of the female (left), male (right) and two big chicks there.
The discovery occurred three days ago on Pig Lake. Although I always smile at its undignified name, I was a bit sad to visit Pig, because neither pair member from 2022 had returned this spring. This fact reminded me of the generally poor return rate in Crow Wing County and my growing concern for loons in Minnesota. So as I gazed through binoculars at the whitecaps on Pig, I braced myself for what more bad news the lake might have to offer.
But among the four loon heads bobbing about in the surf, I was thrilled to spot a banded loon. This bird was one of a pair that dived in close synchrony off of Black Pine Resort. “One of the missing pair members is back!”, I whispered to myself, hopefully. Further observation dispelled that notion. The loon’s right leg showed two colored leg bands. Since all loons banded as adults get a metal band on the right leg, two plastic bands on the right leg meant that I was not watching one of the missing pair members, but instead observing an “ABJ” (adult banded as juvenile). That is, we had banded this loon as a chick.
Two possibilities leapt to mind. This bird might have been a one-in-a-million, 200-mile disperser of undetermined age from the Wisconsin Study Area, where we have been banding adult loons and chicks since time immemorial. Almost equally unlikely, the ABJ might have been one of our first crop of Minnesota chicks banded in 2021. The plot thickened as I compared the size of the ABJ and its mate. The banded bird was clearly smaller. I was looking at a rare female ABJ!*
My efforts to nail the ABJ’s color bands from my solo canoe were not immediately rewarded. I loosely followed the foraging pair, bobbing and spinning about comically amidst the churning waves and boat wakes. Eventually a moment came — forty minutes into my chaotic paddle — when the ABJ and I were carried to the crests of adjacent waves and the bird raised its legs clear of the water. I confirmed that the bird was blue over auric red on the right and red over silver on the left. “B/Ar,R/S”, my notes revealed, was marked as a chick on Ossawinnamakee – Muskie Bay territory on 18 July 2021. So this was indeed a two-year-old female hatched a short distance from Pig.
**The logic is simple here. If there are few young adult floaters (usually 4-, 5- and 6-year olds) in a population competing for territories, then even very young floaters (2- and 3-year olds) might be able to acquire one, despite their generally lower competitive ability and aggressiveness.
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.)
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?
Researchers who venture close to a loon nest abandoned to flies get a small taste of the agony these insects inflict. As if moved by a sweeping dipteran consensus, a cloud of flies buzzing about a nest — drawn by warmth, movement, and carbon dioxide— suddenly shifts its attention to approaching humans. The flies alight on your head and neck, crawl underneath your jacket, and fly errantly into your nose, ears, and mouth. The experience is unpleasant and alarming. It is difficult not to scream.
Yet the tactile and chemical cues humans produce are not satisfying to black flies. They crawl and buzz and annoy. But they do not bite us. So we cannot say that we truly know how loons feel when they are besieged by black flies — when the mouthparts of hundreds of females are inserted into their head and neck at once and departing flies are quickly replaced by new ones that have been waiting their turn to feed. And when it lasts for hours. That helpless miserable sensation is one that humans can only imagine.
Despite the misery they cause, black flies have one great virtue. They plague incubating loons for only a few short weeks.
In the past seven to ten days, black fly numbers at loon nests have dropped substantially. You do not need me to tell you this; the loons have weighed in. Two weeks ago our marked loons in Minnesota and Wisconsin rested and foraged near their nests, gazed longingly at their nests, circled around their nests, and — on a few occasions when we ventured too close — defended their nests from us. This past week has been different; loons are ON their nests. Thus, after a stuttering start, the breeding season has begun.
It is easy to forget that research on the loons of Crow Wing County, Minnesota has been underway for over a decade. To be sure, this work has been spotty. From 2011 to 2014, Kevin Kenow and his USGS team placed geotags on a few dozen adults on four medium-sized lakes in the county. From 2015 through 2017, he shifted his efforts to the Whitefish Chain, where he captured 68 individuals, including 36 territorial adults.
Kevin’s goal was to determine migration and wintering routes of Minnesota loons, which he did after recovering many of the geotags placed on loons’ legs. Although his study was short-term, Kevin’s loons lived on. Each summer and fall they nested and reared young, foraged to build up their reserves for migration, staged on the Great Lakes, and made long overland flights to the Gulf of Mexico. Each spring they molted their feathers and made return trips back to the Whitefish Chain to restart the cycle.
When our Minnesota Loon Project began in 2021, we relocated many of the loons Kevin had banded 4 to 6 years before. We were quite thorough — obsessive, even — in our efforts to do so. At the time I regarded the USGS banding effort as fortunate for us, since it gave us a head start in our efforts to mark all territorial pairs on the Chain.
But Kevin’s marked loons have not merely reduced our loon marking workload. Kevin’s birds are charter members of the Minnesota Loon Project. The survival of these inaugural adults since the years Kevin’s team marked them provides our first multi-year snapshot of adult loon survival in Crow Wing County.
The data provide an unconventional snapshot. When one conducts a mark-recapture study, one normally searches diligently for all marked individuals during the years immediately after marking. This strategy produces data on annual return rate, which provides an estimate of annual survival. But we lack data on return rates from 2018, 2019, and 2020. So we must do the best we can to extract information from Kevin’s birds despite multiple years with missing data.
Fortunately, this is not rocket science. If “r” is the annual rate of return, then r2 is the probability of being on territory two years after banding, r3 is the probability of still being present three years later, and so on. Recognizing this, we can easily project how many of the 36 territorial adults that Kevin banded in 2015, 2016, and 2017 should have still been on territory in 2021. If annual rate of return were 90%, we would have expected to see 20.5 of Kevin’s loons in 2021. At 85%, the expectation is 15.1. If the annual rate of return were 80%, then we should have seen 11.0 loons. In fact, our exhaustive search turned up 13 of Kevin’s loons. So this places our rough estimate of annual loon survival for the Whitefish Chain at 82.5%.
To my knowledge, ours is is the first long-term estimate of adult loon survival from Minnesota based on a marked population. This is rather shocking; loons are well studied in the U.S., have been marked in at least ten states….and are the state bird, for goodness sake! In any event, this preliminary estimate gives us a ballpark figure for adult survival that we can compare with more robust estimates from other states.
The data from Minnesota so far only provide a glimmer about the loon population in Crow Wing County. However, these low survival estimates do bring to mind a worrisome downward trend in loon numbers for the region that can be seen in the 2021 Minnesota Loon Monitoring Report. But, really, it is early days. We need more data. Furthermore, the status of a loon population is not dependent upon adult survival alone. Low adult survival can be offset by a high reproductive rate. So we will have to spend at least two more years tracking return rates of marked loons and measuring breeding success before we can pull them together into a model that will tell us (preliminarily) how Crow Wing loons are doing. Still, if I am being honest, I wish the survival numbers were a bit higher.
Thanks to Katy Dahl, who photographed the Cross Lake-Arrowhead Point loon pair after we banded them in 2021. The male in the foreground with his bands out of water was spotted a few days ago just north of Minneapolis.
If, like us, you are concerned about the persistence of loons in Minnesota, consider a donation to support our field efforts. We run a lean program. Funds donated to the Loon Project do not pay overhead, administrative costs, or salaries for staff or senior personnel. They pay only field costs like: 1) stipends to keep student field workers alive, 2) travel costs to, from, and within our study areas, and 3) supply costs such as for colored leg bands and canoe paddles. Thanks!
I should have known all along. I should have known last May, when the ancient outboard motor we had just bought to cover the Whitefish Chain spewed a foul rainbow sheen onto the water’s surface and belched a caustic purple cloud that momentarily blinded us. I should have known as I filled huge tanks of gasoline at the Holiday convenience store in Crosslake, hefted them down to the dock, and hooked them up to the belching motor. I should have balked at the absurdity of using a filthy, fossil-fuel-guzzling outboard to study an animal that requires clean air and water.
Instead, I shrugged. “This is how people get around in the Northwoods”, I thought. “This is inevitable. This is the environmental cost of studying loons on big lakes.”
In my own defense, my understanding of proper boating practices became ingrained during my childhood. Back then, when we needed to provision our cottage on an island on 40-mile-long Lake Temagami in central Ontario, we took our little 2-stroke outboard over to the Ojibway Store on Devil’s Island. I still recall taking in the pleasing aroma of balsam fir mingled with mixed gasoline as we listened to the soft lapping of waves against the store’s dock. At the time, my major concern was whether Mom would treat us to Burnt Almond bars when she had finished ordering our groceries. Gasoline was just an innocuous part of the landscape we inhabited.
Indeed, to folks of my generation and generations adjacent, the angry whine of an outboard motor, the slap of a stiff wind in our faces, and the sight of parting, churning waters behind us seem inextricably linked to the pungent smell of gasoline.
But it need not be so. There is a growing market for electric outboards (and inboards) that can replace gasoline motors smoothly and are far cleaner (of course), quieter, and — according to what experts say — very reliable and low-maintenance. I have been researching this.
Why have I experienced this sudden desire to go electric on the water? Two reasons. First, the last two Wisconsin field teams and I faced an absolute nightmare every time we tried to start up our vintage 9-horsepower Evinrude. I did not collect data on our efforts, but I believe we averaged 43 almost-shoulder-dislocating tugs of the starter cord per lake to get that dirty old 2-stroke started. I have had it! (I believe Sarah ’22, Molly, Claudia, Chris, Tia, Bailee, and Sarah ’21 will applaud this move.)
Second, I can no longer deny the obvious. The relentless march of climate change has begun to hurt loons in the Upper Midwest. We can see it in the increase in the May black fly population, which forces loon pairs to suffer horribly as they to incubate their eggs, often to the point of abandonment. And it is even more evident in the sharp decline in July water clarity during the past quarter century (see below) — a decline that impairs loon parents’ ability to find food to feed their chicks. Both increased black flies and decreased water clarity, we now know, come about in large part because today’s warmer, rainier summers produce more flowing water that: 1) supports increased black fly reproduction and 2) washes more matter into lakes that reduces clarity.
So I have finally figured something out that I should have guessed before. Climate change is hurting loon populations in the Upper Midwest in multiple, measurable ways. Cutting back on fossil fuel usage where I can will help slow this damaging pattern. And that is a step in the right direction.
After losing our primary source of funding for Minnesota, we are facing a money crunch. The news came rather suddenly. It has left me pondering this sea change in our circumstances and wondering where it leaves us.
It is ironic to lose our funding at this particular moment. After intensive field efforts in 2021 and 2022, the Chapman/Loon Project database now contains two full years of field data from Minnesota. We have made scores of friends and lake contacts — mostly through the tireless efforts of students on the LP field team in Minnesota. Having marked one or both adults on 57 of 105 territories we cover in and around Crosslake, we are more than halfway to our goal of building out the Minnesota Study Area. Completion of our marking efforts in 2023 and 2024 would bring Minnesota up to par with our long-term study population in Wisconsin. Most important, we have roughly half of the necessary data to construct the first-ever true population model in the state using marked loons. So it is only a slight exaggeration to say that we have accomplished in two years in Minnesota what it took us 10 to 15 years to achieve in Wisconsin.
In short, our 2021 and 2022 field teams in Minnesota have built a great LP database that has all of the promise we thought it would. I would be remiss if I did not thank Kevin and the USGS loon capture team that contributed mightily to our banding efforts in 2022. A bunch of other folks helped out with capture and tracking of the Minnesota population in 2021 and 2022, including Mike and Natasha of the NLC, Richard and Terri, Dawn and Keith, Mary, and Kris. Jon, Melanie, and Mike from Boyd Lodge housed the field team during our work. Mike and John loaned us their boats. (Apologies if I have forgotten someone.)
Naturally, now that we have established a robust study population from which we will soon be able to extract reliable population data, I am acutely concerned about the sudden funding shortfall. But should you share my concern? If you live in Wisconsin or Maine or Ontario, why should you care about Minnesota loons? After all, we have excellent long-term data on the northern Wisconsin loon population that provides a sensitive gauge of the population trend in one part of the Upper Midwest. Why can’t we generalize the results from Wisconsin to Minnesota? In other words, if the Wisconsin loon population is thriving or tanking, isn’t it safe to presume that the Minnesota population is doing the same?
Minnesota and Wisconsin loon populations certainly seem similar. The states share a lengthy border across which loons fly freely. We have learned from recoveries of our banded birds in other seasons that the migration and wintering grounds of Wisconsin and Minnesota loons overlap almost completely. Adult loons in Wisconsin and Minnesota are of very similar size — and both populations contain adults much smaller than the loons of New England. Loons consume the same species of fish, are plagued by the same species of black fly, and must dive, duck, and dodge boats and fishing lures in both states. Importantly, lead fishing tackle — banned in New England — kills many adults and chicks in Wisconsin and Minnesota both. And, of course, loons are also loved and fiercely protected by most lake residents and visitors in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Doesn’t all of this mean that the population trend we detect in Wisconsin loons is likely to hold also in Minnesota?
Perhaps. But there are also differences. In general, loons appear to be packed more densely in Minnesota than in Wisconsin. Weather patterns, while broadly overlapping, differ between the states. Minnesota loons are more northerly, on average, than loons in Wisconsin. To presume that the two states’ loon populations fluctuate in harmony is risky. And, of course, if the Minnesota loon population echoes the Wisconsin loon population, our Minnesota measurements are even more important to make. Remember, the northern Wisconsin loon population is in serious decline. Minnesota loons could be declining in concert with Wisconsin loons, could be stable, or could be declining more rapidly than Wisconsin’s loons. Without running the numbers, we just don’t know.
The condition of Minnesota loons matters for another reason. Since loons in the Upper Midwest experience many of the same hazards as loons across the breeding range (e.g. water clarity, black flies, human angling, lead toxicity, and recreational pressure), our detailed and rigorous observations in Wisconsin and Minnesota have implications far beyond the Upper Midwest. By studying two populations 200 miles apart, we can compare factors that impinge on loons across populations. Any common patterns that we see across the two study populations are likely to indicate factors of broad impact — factors probably important in New Hampshire, Quebec, and Montana.
My discussion of the Minnesota loon population exposes a second irony. Minnesota provides a summer home for more loons — by a 3 to 1 margin — than any state in the lower 48, and Minnesotans love their state bird. Yet Minnesota arguably knows less about its loons than any other state in the contiguous U.S. (As I pointed out some months ago, what data we do have on Minnesota loons create cause for concern.) The LP database in Minnesota — once we finish building it and can build a model to learn about population dynamics — would permit us to remedy this unfortunate irony regarding Minnesota’s loons. Our work would alert us to any decline in the state, and our accompanying study of causes of reproductive failure could help us design and put in place a conservation plan that (with luck) could reverse any decline. Yet with this crucial milestone in sight, we suddenly lack the funding we need to reach it.
In truth, we have always faced challenges in Minnesota. Our most important lake there is Whitefish, which contains about a third of our territories, and where we are sometimes driven off of the lake by brutal winds and whitecaps. Even our “small lakes” in Minnesota are, on average, 50% larger than those in Wisconsin, which forces us to spend longer periods finding study animals by canoe. When compared with Wisconsin, everything is expensive around Crosslake and often in short supply — that goes for lodging, storage space, equipment, and most everything else. And tacking a Minnesota Study Area onto the Wisconsin Study Area has doubled my annual workload. Despite my determined efforts, I have not spent enough time in Minnesota nor have I been able to adequately support the field team there. Considering the 1,329 obstacles we confront in Minnesota — to which we can now add lack of funding — maybe we should throw up our hands and throw in the towel.
But then, loons could say the same. Territorial pairs face enormous obstacles each summer in trying to raise chicks. They must find safe nesting sites, defend them from predators, and incubate their eggs for four long weeks regardless of weather conditions. Hatching, which would appear worthy of a celebration, is, in reality, not even a halfway point for the pair. Instead, hatching merely introduces a new suite of hazards for parents, including new predators, the threat of infanticide by intruding loons, and the difficulty of finding enough food for their chicks — especially if they are on a small lake and it has been a rainy summer. And, of course, both parents are in constant danger of being evicted from their territory by young upstart loons that are always on the prowl for breeding territories. In short, the task of raising two healthy chicks, or even one, is incredibly daunting. If loons had the ability to ponder the vast array of obstacles to successful reproduction, they might never attempt it.
The desperate struggle of loons to raise young despite a host of challenges was illustrated vividly by the loon pair on the Little Pine-Dream Island territory this year. Little Pine is a pleasant, rather quiet lake on the Whitefish Chain. We marked the Dream Island pair in 2021, during which they raised a chick. Both pair members returned this year, so we knew they were veterans with a track record of chick production. But their experience in earlier years did not prepare them for the buzzsaw they encountered this past summer. When we found the Dream Island pair on May 27th, they were off the nest and spending a great deal of time under water. We quickly learned why. Black flies were tormenting them mercilessly. The relentless flies were present in huge numbers on the nest and on vegetation near the nest. They frolicked in great clouds in the air above the nest. And the pair members’ heads were blanketed by flies, each probing the skin for a spot to make an incision. Even constant diving by both male and female failed to dislodge these blood-sucking pests. During our visit, the male (pictured below in the water near the nest) made a pitiful attempt to mount the nest and resume incubation, but he could not bear to do so.
After surveying the nightmare scenario at Dream Island, I gave them a low probability of resuming their incubation duties in time to rescue the eggs and hatch their chicks. It did not seem possible that a male and female whose heads and necks were thickly encrusted with welts from hundreds upon hundreds of fly bites would see this nesting attempt through to hatching. But by some miracle, the pair hatched both eggs successfully three weeks later. I was flabbergasted. Despite 30 years spent watching nesting behavior of loons, this one successful attempt against all odds remains seared into my brain. It is impossible to know how many female black flies participated in the blood-letting of the Dream Island pair. But I suspect, like us, they had at least 1,329 reasons to quit.
I find myself drawing inspiration from the Dream Island pair. No one could have anticipated that they would hatch their eggs after facing such an unexpected and disheartening challenge. Yet offered the temptation of bowing to adversity, they stuck it out and triumphed.
Field ecologists are often told that they come to resemble their study animal. I am not dismayed by this comparison. In fact, if I can bring half as much determination and stick-to-it-iveness to my research program as the Dream Island pair bring to their nesting efforts, I will consider myself an unalloyed success.
This seems a good time for me to emulate the Dream Island loons and resist the temptation to give up the Minnesota work. The stakes are enormous. Minnesotans would be devastated to lose loons from the state or even from part of the state. And based on my work in neighboring Wisconsin, Minnesota loons are likely in trouble. Do I turn away from these good people — and a new set of loons with which I have begun to bond — when I meet some adversity?
So I am asking for your help. If we are able to raise $3,500, that will permit us to go to Crosslake and complete the late May census of the 105 or so loon territories that comprise our study area there. The census is a vital part of the year’s field effort, because sightings (or non-sightings) of adults we marked in 2021 and 2022 permit us to calculate the rate of return to the territory from the previous year, an indication of adult survival. If we are even more fortunate and receive $7,000 in donations for the 2023 Minnesota field effort, that will allow us to complete the all-important May census and also visit the territories again once or twice in July to determine rate of reproductive success. Reproductive success is a second important piece of demographic data that will help us refine the population model we build in two years. Finally, if by some miracle we are able to pull together $17,000 for Minnesota, that will permit us to do the census, measure reproductive success late in the year, and band enough new loons to bring our Minnesota Study Area up from two-thirds finished to fully marked. The 2023 banding effort would increase our sample of banded birds and strengthen the population assessment we will carry out in the near future.
If you have already donated to our study, thank you so much! If you have not yet contributed financially to our work and are now able to assist with our Minnesota field effort, we would appreciate it! As I have explained, your donation will be spent in an effort to learn about and conserve Minnesota loons. (If you wish to donate funds, but would like your donation to go to helping loons in our traditional Wisconsin population instead of the new Minnesota population, please specify that when you donate, and we will honor your request.)
Feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions about our fundraising effort and how you can help. For example, if you can offer us housing in the Crosslake area for a week in May and/or for ten days to two weeks in late July, that would reduce our funding needs greatly and bring us closer to our goals.
Thanks for any help you can give us. I am anxious to complete the promising work that we began two years ago and will move heaven and earth to keep the Minnesota Study Area afloat. Things look grim at the moment, but I am hopeful that, like the Dream Island pair, I can weather adversity and emerge stronger on the far side of it.