On its face, the photo is comical. A loon sits on its egg on a swim raft, a meter from an American flag. A garish McMansion is visible on the opposite shore. Few photos of the common loon are more at odds with the image of the species as a symbol of the northern wilderness. Yet Linda Grenzer’s photo of the nest on Crystal Lake is a poignant portrait of the situation faced by most territorial pairs in north-central Wisconsin.
Many popular accounts describe common loon populations as holding on for dear life. To be sure, loons are threatened by shoreline development, which reduces nesting habitat. Recreational fishing and boating kills many adults and chicks prematurely each year. And methylmercury in the food chain, swollen by coal-based power production, likely impacts the loon population as well.
Against all odds, however, loons appear to be holding their own in northern Wisconsin. Despite consistent losses caused by collisions with boats and entanglement in fishing lines, populations have bounced back in recent decades. The surprising resilience of loons seems to result from two facts. First, loons prefer to nest on small islands and on boggy and marshy habitats that humans avoid. Thus, loon pairs continue to produce young on lakes that are virtually encircled by human dwellings. Second, as illustrated in the photo, loons tolerate — and rarely even benefit from — human alterations of aquatic habitats.
The pair on Crystal Lake, whose nest is pictured, were in a real bind. Crystal is a very pleasant lake, but it lacks islands — the nesting spots most favored by loons — and also features neither bog nor marsh. Previous nesting attempts by the male (reared on nearby Muskellunge Lake in 2006) and a parade of 3 or more different females since 2011 ended in abject failure, the eggs an annual donation to local raccoons. Although they crawl onto it with great difficulty and complete loss of dignity, the Crystal pair decided a few weeks ago to place their nest on a low-lying swim raft. The raft is high above lake level and not equipped with any sort of ramp to assist small chicks in re-mounting the raft once they have entered the water, so we are concerned that the chicks will not be able to return to the nest (to be kept warm by a parent in the first few days of life) once they have left it. Still, the likelihood of hatch is good, and Linda and her helpers placed nesting material on the raft to keep the eggs from rolling off. We are hopeful that the loons can cope with the problem of nest height just as they do with a host of other anthropogenic obstacles each day in northern Wisconsin.
I shall keep you informed. If the Crystal pair can hatch and rear their chick to adulthood, they will be a vivid example of the capacity of loons to adapt and thrive in an environment thoroughly dominated by another species.
After 2014’s disastrously low chick production owing to black fly infestation, I was anxious that breeding success would rebound in 2015. My concern defied reason. Loons are long-lived, of course, and a few or even several consecutive years of below-average chick production are not enough to have a lasting negative impact on the population. Still, blinded by the irrational human tendency to infer long-term impacts from short-term patterns, I wished to see our loon pairs come back and raise many chicks in 2015, just as Linda Grenzer’s pair has (see photo).
This year is shaping up to be a very good year indeed. As of this date, 31 of the 120 territories we follow (25.8%) have already hatched chicks. In contrast, only 2 breeding pairs (of 112 pairs; 1.8%) had chicks on this date in 2014. That is an unfair comparison, because the black flies devastated early nests in 2014. However, 2013 was a rather good year for chick production, and in 2013 only 20 of 108 pairs we followed (18.5%) had chicks on this date. Although these data are slightly biased because of yearly differences in nesting schedules — that is, 2013 was a slightly later year than this year — 2015 should be an awfully productive breeding season for loons in northern Wisconsin. As a scientist, I am breathing a huge, sheepish sigh of relief!
We have almost completed the first round of visits to study lakes. Our ever-expanding list of lakes makes this no mean task, as our list has grown from 95 territories in 2008 to 123 this year. Kudos to the field staff of Joel, Eric, Chris, and Linda (whose photo appears above), who have worked hard to visit lakes and ID loons from leg bands — and also Al on West Horsehead and Pat on Silver Lake, who have e-mailed with data from their lakes.
Of 162 banded loons on territories as of late 2014, 141 (or 87%) have reclaimed those territories this spring. Among 21 missing territory holders from 2014, 4 have been resighted in 2015, but were apparently evicted from their territories early this year. Thus, the minimum survival rate from 2014 to 2015 for territory holders is about 90%. This figure agrees closely with survival rates calculated from Wisconsin and elsewhere within the breeding range.
Sky-high return and survival rates for our population highlight a simple pattern in the life history of common loons. In ecological terms, loons are “K-selected”. That is, they are long-lived, take several years to reach sexual maturity, produce few offspring during their lives, and invest heavily in parental care for the few offspring they do produce. Loons are not explosive reproducers that “shot-gun” many offspring out into an uncaring environment in hopes that a few survive. Rather, they work hard to maintain ownership of their breeding territory, eke out one or two chicks a year (in a good year!), and defend their chicks vigorously against all comers!
By any reasonable measure, 2014 has been a dreadful year for loon reproduction. Even if we capture every remaining loon chick that we know of, our total number banded will be almost exactly half of last year’s total. Clearly, the black flies hit the loons’ breeding efforts in the mouth, and they could not recover. Still, it is only one year. As my work has shown me over the past two decades, breeding success is a roller-coaster. In fact, if you combine last year’s bumper crop of chicks with the withered output of this year, the message is that loons are producing enough chicks to sustain the population. So all is not lost.
There have been a few bright spots this year. Though we were alarmed in early June when the Jersey City Flowage male ingested a fishing lure and became hopelessly entangled, the folks at REGI were able to save the bird, he was released near his old territory and recovered — except for possession of his territory! The REGI folks were brought an emaciated chick found by a roadside that they fed back to reasonable health and that we were able to foster successfully to a loon family that has raised it as their own. We recently banded both this fostered chick and its sibling, a true biological chick of the pair. Both chicks have become big healthy, strapping young birds, thanks to their parents’ tireless efforts.
In short, life goes on. I am confident that we will long remember 2014 and not wish to repeat the experience. But perhaps we should best remember 2014 as a year that, while dismal for chick production, was balanced out by strong reproductive years surrounding it and did not pass by without a few cheerful tidings.
Since 2014 marked by far the most intense explosion of black flies in recent memory, I wanted to look at how loons are faring reproductively this year compared to last. It has now been over a month since the peak of “black fly season”, which was miserable for loons but lasted only about a week. Yet the flies were thick enough and their outbreak coincided so closely with the start of incubation for most pairs that about 70% of all loon pairs in our population abandoned their nests.
It seemed certain that the epic abandonment of early nests in 2014 would negatively impact the number of chicks produced by our population. And it has. Based on my analysis of 96 territories covered in 2013 and 2014, I have the following results. Last year, 41 pairs had hatched chicks by 30 June, while 14 had nests close to hatching, 10 had early nests whose outcome was uncertain, 21 pairs had failed for the year, and 10 pairs had never nested (to our knowledge). In 2014, the numbers were 6 chicks, 30 promising nests, 15 early nests, 21 failed pairs, and 14 pairs without no nest during the season.
The disparity in chicks produced is alarming, of course. This is the most important number. The picture gets a bit rosier when you crunch the numbers and recognize that many pairs currently on nests will eventually hatch chicks. Based on an assumption of 70% hatch rate among pairs in the “likely hatch” group and 40% in the early nest stage — perhaps slightly optimistic — the total estimated chicks produced in 2013 and 2014 are 54.8 and 33.0, respectively. To put it another way, about 57% of all pairs reared chicks in 2013; 34% will in 2014. This is a decline of 40% in the number of territorial pairs producing chicks.
Now, we need to step back here. Loons are long-lived animals, and most pairs that failed to raise chicks, owing in large part to black flies, will try again next year. So, in the big picture, the decrease in rate of chick production is not so awful. In a few more years, we will look back on 2014 as just a worse-than-average year for loon chicks, not a year that threatened to end loon life as we know it. But it is hard to be very upbeat at the moment.
It is still early, but I can already see that 2013 will be a good year for chick production in northern Wisconsin. Thirty-nine of about 120 pairs that we follow have hatched chicks already, and 24 other pairs still have active nests and might produce chicks. Since it is always a dicey proposition to incubate eggs for four weeks without a raccoon eating them or some other calamity befalling them, having almost half of all pairs rear chicks successfully is cause for celebration. We are feeling good about the population.