A Northwoods Almanac for January 23 – February 5, 2015
Remarkable Loon Drama Last Spring
Al Schwoegler has been a LoonWatch volunteer for about 30 years, monitoring loon territory and nesting on West Horsehead Lake in Oneida County. I met Al recently, and he told me a story about the intense loon competition that occurred on his lake last spring. It’s a long story, and while I know it’s January and loons won’t return until April, it’s really quite a remarkable read. Here’s an edited version of what he wrote in an email:
“In the last two decades, the ability of researchers to safely capture loons and outfit them with individualized color leg band combinations has been the biggest advance in loon research. It opened the door to study them in-depth. If your lake's loons are banded, it is possible to know who comes back to claim the territory each spring and know if they are able to remain on the lake for the whole year.
“People from our area all reported a poor year for loons. My home lake, West Horsehead (WH) in Oneida County, was especially disappointing. It was monitored by Walter Piper and his crew. Late ice-out was the start of problems. It compressed the time needed for the loons to establish a territory and get down to nesting. It got worse from there.
“WH lake's loon pair arrived May 2nd intact. The female was our long-term resident who was banded by Walter on WH Lake in the mid 90s and I estimate she is at least 25 years old. The previous year’s male also returned. He was banded as a new juvenile 14 years ago on Alva Lake, 3 miles NNE, and has been here at WH every spring for the last 8 years.
“Nesting started in the middle of May and looked like it was going well. There were two eggs. However, every day there were male loons from elsewhere checking out the territory and confronting our male. He worked hard chasing others away and managed to keep his territory and nest intact.
“Around May 20 we had a period of many warm sunny days. This caused a huge hatch of loon-feeding black flies. These flies were in a thick cloud above the nest and were constantly biting the nesting loons. The loons were spending a lot of time off the nest, leaving their eggs cold and vulnerable, and diving to get rid of the flies. They weren't even preening their feathers because the flies would zero in on them everywhere and bite as the loon attempted to preen. Many area lakes had these flies, and it was so bad that 70% of loons on local nests simply abandoned their nests. These flies feed only on loon blood. They rarely landed on me, and if they did, they did not bite.
“I suspected our loons had also abandoned their nest because they were incubating the eggs less each day. It was over a week until the flies subsided. At that point, I observed loons back on the nest. I theorized that they were laying new eggs and would attempt to hatch a new pair of eggs. It would mean 28 days of egg incubation and hope for the best. I could not prove if the eggs were new or old, dead or alive, two eggs or four eggs. It was both a disappointment and a mystery. To make matters worse, there continued to be male intruder loons who tried to take over the territory and boot our male off the lake and usurp the territory. Our male loon was constantly on the defense.
“In mid-June I began to see a loon on the lake whose bands were not those of our resident male. I started to follow it to make an ID. On June 16th I anchored my rowboat for many hours in an attempt to ID the intruder and check on the nest. I was able to observe that our female was the one on the nest and the 2nd loon was a stranger, presumed to be male. As I watched, the intruder male approached the nest 2 times and stood in the water in a "penguin posture". This is well known as an aggressive behavior between loons. The female showed this same aggression to chase him off and returned to the nest.
“While the female was off the nest, I spotted a brown ball of fur and a hatched egg. There was a newly hatched loon chick on the nest!! The eggs had remained alive through the onslaught of flies and lack of incubation in May! It was the female alone who had stayed on the nest for the last two days in the presence of a new male intruder. Normally males/females split the nest duty. An intruder/usurper will not.
“She defended the nest! The chick was hopping around on the nest and there were signs of a second chick pecking its way out of the other egg!! If only the intruder would leave and the first male return, we would have a beautiful pair of chicks paraded around the lake! The male usurper then showed up from across the lake in a final quest. He lunged at the female with his beak as if to kill her, and it forced her off the nest. As she paused in the water behind the nest and, the intruder pushed his way into the nest. He pecked the newly hatched chick and tossed it up like a rag doll, killing it. He then pierced the second egg, killing the hatchling inside. It was horrible to watch and a tearful scene for me.
“The male loon, obviously a usurper, left and rested on the water over 300 yards away. The female looked confused, shocked and still. She sat like that for about 10 minutes, left the area and swam to join the new male. They swam as a pair and began foraging together. The deed had been done. The original male was nowhere to be seen, and the territory now belonged to the usurper. What transpired was infanticide, somewhat common in nature. The male wants his own genes passed on, not those of the prior male who he has overpowered and chased away.
“Through all this activity I was able to make a call to Walter Piper and report it. It was a rare event I had witnessed. I was able to get an ID on the male usurper's bands, and Walter reported the male was an 9-year-old who was hatched on Harrison Flowage in northern Lincoln County 14 mi SSE of WH. Walter banded him on that lake.
“The new Harrison male did not mate with the female, and no further nesting occurred. He only lasted until mid-July when he was ousted by an unbanded male who then paired with our WH female. A few days later, I observed another new male usurper. This third male usurper was now the fourth male to be paired with the WH female this season. He was 5 years old and had been banded by Walter as a juvenile at Oneida Lake about 6 miles south of WH. He was still holding territory in September.
“It will be real interesting to see who returns to claim West Horsehead Lake in the spring. Stay tuned.”
Al’s story emphasizes just how intensely valuable a loon territory is to each pair, how vigorously they’ll defend it, how often defense is required, and how “monogamous” males and females are really wed to their territory and not to their mate.
For further information from Walter Piper’s excellent blog, go to: http://loonproject.org/recent-events/
Winter has its drawbacks, of course, but for ease of exploration into otherwise very wet places, I’ll take these months of snowshoeing anytime. No mosquitoes and frozen wetlands and bogs – recall the hordes of mosquitoes we had last June!
I was recently tipped off to a small stand of old-growth white pines on a small upland surrounded by extensive bog, and I told our friends Bernie Langreck and Peggie Bronsberg about wanting to explore it. Well, Bernie got the map and broke the snowshoe trail in before Mary and I could get there, so when we finally made it last week, we had a packed trail (we’ve taken to calling Bernie “the Bulldozer”). What a luxury!
We found the pines and were treated to at least 20 or more with diameters over three feet, the largest with a four-foot diameter (see the photo of Bernie and Peggy next to the tree). These are very large pines for this time in Wisconsin’s history. John Curtis wrote in his seminal book Vegetation of Wisconsin, “Most of the big pines cut in the heyday of the lumbering business were about four hundred years old, and stemmed from widespread catastrophes in the 1400’s. The occasional giants of 7 to 10 feet dbh [diameter breast height] reported by the surveyors must have been still older. Results from modern studies, therefore, cannot give a true picture of the actual magnitude and majesty of a mature pine forest at its optimum.”
I have a hard time imagining pines with diameters from 7 to 10 feet, given how impressed I am by one “only” 4 feet in diameter.
This site adjoins a state natural area, and I’m writing to the state natural area council to recommend they extend the boundary to include this small stand. Pines of this magnitude are rare as hen’s teeth these days and deserve all the protection we can offer.
Sightings: Bohemian Waxwings, Shrike, Snowy Owl
Beginning on 1/12, a small flock of bohemian waxwings have been eating crabapples in our yard. These northern visitors are among the most beautiful birds in the North Country, and the rarity of their appearances only heightens our appreciation.
Ed Marshall sent me a photo of a northern shrike that was stalking his bird feeders. Shrikes have been conspicuous by their absence – we’ve yet to see one so far this winter.
Sarah Krembs, who reported watching two snowy owls in Antigo a few weeks ago, observed another snowy owl, this time on a fence around the perimeter of the Central Wisconsin Airport. As of 1/14, the statewide snowy owl tally stands at 239 birds, compared to 224 as of this date last year. Reports of new birds have dropped off as the birds have settled into their wintering areas.
Planets to look for at dusk: Venus shines very low in the southwest; Mars sits very low also in the southwest and sets by 8 p.m.; and brilliant Jupiter begins in the east, moves across the sky to the south by midnight, and rests in the northwest at dawn. Also before dawn, look for Saturn in the south.
We receive nearly ten hours of sunlight as of Feb. 2, a much better reason to celebrate the day than the possibility of a woodchuck coming out of hibernation.
The full moon occurs on 2/3. Variously called the “Snow” or “Hunger” or “When Coyotes Are Frightened” Moon, look also about 5° north of it to spy Jupiter. This day also marks the mid-way point between winter solstice and spring equinox.
Thought for the Week – On Our Need for Walking
“How can you explain that you need to know that the trees are still there, and the hills and the sky? Anyone knows they are. How can you say it is time your pulse responded to another rhythm, the rhythm of the day and season, instead of the hour and the minute? No, you cannot explain. So you walk.” – New York Times editorial, 1967