Sunday, February 24, 2008

Loons of Lower LaPomkeag (guest post)

Many (most) of the bird sightings and pictures for the reports here come from a small network of birders/naturalists here in northern Maine. A longtime friend, Bill Hersey, of Caribou, is one of those reporters. Bill regularly keeps me up to date with the bird life he sees at his home, camp and as he travels around the county. Like most of us, Bill has been thinking of the warmer days to come and reflecting back on the past year. I thought I'd share (with his permission) some very interesting Common Loon observations Bill recently recounted... Enjoy...

Hi Bill;

Finally am getting around to writing to you about my observations at Lower Lapomkeag Lake in T8 R7. This is the same little (100 acres + or -) mud bottom lake where I saw 6 ospreys fishing at the same time the day after ice out last spring. I’m not sure whether the early morning of August 11, 2007 was the most exciting time of my life, or whether it was another early morning while serving in South Vietnam in 1969.

Things started to happen shortly after 7:00 A.M. while sitting on the dock having a coffee in the early morning sun; and while watching a loon and her about 2 week old chick. The dad was aimlessly floating about 500' away from the mom (presumably), and her little, black fluff ball.

Before I get to the exciting part, I’ll bore you with:


My brother-in-law (now deceased) and I inquired about obtaining a camp lease in 1986. In 1987 we obtained a lease and put in the access road during the summer of 1988, followed by a camp platform in 1989, a privy in ‘90 and construction of the camp on the platform in ‘91. We built a small 4' by 10' dock in ‘95. We noticed during these years that there were 2 - 4 loons on the lake most of the time, but never saw any evidence of any nesting, or of chicks.

One of us had read somewhere that some ponds were bachelor ponds for loons, so we never thought much about there not being any nesting activity. Until I read that at some lakes and ponds there was no nesting due to a lack of suitable nesting sites (or site). And in some places - especially New Hampshire - rafts were placed in protected coves to provide a nesting site.

So in 2000 I decided to place a raft in a protected cove. During Memorial weekend my sister-in-law and nephew and I (my brother-in-law had died of colon cancer in April) built a 4' by 4' raft from eastern white cedar logs. We covered the bottom with mesh wire to hold the bark gathered from a near-by wood harvesting site. And put a couple of inches of blueboard under the raft to supply additional floatation, then hauling it with a canoe to a protected cove near the south shore of the lake. During the summer we gathered wetland plants like sedges, blue flag, cattails (they grew great for 2 years then died out), and other plants from wet areas. We planted small eastern white cedar in the 4 corners, all of which died. Over the years, the raft picked seeds out of the air and became well vegetated with “volunteers”.

And wouldn’t you know it , that year (2000) a loon nested on a small peat island near the lake inlet. She incubated 2 eggs, both of which hatched. A dead chick was found on the nest. The second chick was seen riding on its mom’s back. Trips to camp only occur about once/month so a lot happens that is not seen. There are only two other camps on the lake - no one has ever been seen at one, and the other only gets visited on some long weekends. The next trip to camp revealed no chick. It must have died or been predated by an eagle or turtle.

In 2001 a Canada goose purloined the nest. In 2002 and 2003 (6 eggs) a Canada goose again used the nest. It is not known if the eggs hatched and the goose left the lake with her brood, or disappeared as the result of predation. No goslings were seen in either of the 3 years. In 2004 there were 2 loon eggs in a new location on a nearby peat island at the inlet . Again, the egg shells remained but no chicks were seen (presumably they hatched, but did not survive). And something dined on fresh water clams, leaving the shells on the nest. 2005 resulted in 2 loon eggs on the peat island. It is not known whether the eggs hatched or not, but no chicks were seen. No nesting activity was seen in 2006.

No nesting activity was seen on the 4th of July weekend in 2007 at the peat island near the inlet. Only one loon call was heard that weekend, which I thought came from the upper lake. And since no loons were seen, I thought the lake was inactive again as far as loon nesting was concerned. I decided to take a trip to the raft just before leaving to go home at the end of the weekend to see what might be there; as often there are fish skeletons left from where eagles (there is a bald eagle nest on the upper lake, and eagles are often seen fishing or perched beside the lower lake), or otters have used the raft for a feeding platform. Also, the biggest bull frogs in Maine sun themselves on the logs.

A good variety of vegetation has seeded in on the raft over the years, so during the summer it is now well vegetated to a height of about 3', so one must round the raft to see what is there. We rounded the far side of the raft and low and behold - surprise - there was a loon nest with two olive, brown, spotted eggs. We boogied out of there pretty damn fast. Never did see the loons, and never heard a peep from them either. In fact, at the time I thought the nest had been abandoned due to the lack if loons. But after 7 years, the raft was being used.

I returned to the lake on August 1st with my grandson and never saw or heard any loons. On August 4 we jumped into a couple of kayaks and circled the lake looking at the 2 nests near the inlet - no activity. We then circled the loon nesting raft. Both eggs had only shells remaining. Since I had not seen any loons, I supposed the nest had been parasitized by the eagles, or other animal. We headed toward camp, as the wind was coming up. On the way, I noticed the loons at the far southerly end of the lake where the water was more calm. Looking at them through my unsteady, rocking binocs I saw a small, black, fuzz ball which I assumed was only a couple of days old. The loons had hatched at least one of the eggs, and it was still alive (I suspect both eggs hatched but one chick was lost).

In the 20 years we have been at the lake no chicks had survived. The only time I knew for sure they hatched an egg (2000), the chick did not survive. No chicks were seen the other years the loons had nested, though the eggs apparently had hatched. Until this year. I did not expect to see the chick when I next returned the evening of August 10. But, looking through the gathering darkness, there was the chick swimming beside its parents in the middle of the lake.

So on a nice, warm, sunny morning on August 11, 2007 at about 7:00 A.M. I carried a coffee down and sat on the dock watching through my binocs the mother loon near the southerly side of the lake with her nearby chick. Dad was aimlessly floating about 500' away.

Mom (I assume the one tending the chick was the mom) had a fish about 10" long in her beak, and was swinging her head side to side. You could see its white sides and belly flashing in the early morning sun as she did so. I remember asking myself why she had such a big fish, since it was much too big to feed to Junior, but figured she was teaching the chick something. All of a sudden - simultaneously with her alarm cry - a mature bald eagle followed by an immature swooped down from the easterly lake shore. Upon hearing mom’s shriek or wail , the male loon immediately started running on the water, shrieking, beating its wing tips on the water, presumably to make himself more fierce. As the mature eagle got to the mother loon, she (the loon) jumped out of the water to deflect him (or her), dropping the fish. The eagle flew by and did a F-16 loop, and came back to the loon and her chick, with the male loon still walking on water, beating it wings, and making a helleva noise. The eagle lowered to the lake surface (the immature eagle had turned around and headed back east) and picked something out of the lake. I said to myself “holy shit he got the baby loon”. I could see something in his talons as he left. About 5 seconds later (about the same time dad arrived on the scene) the baby loon popped to the surface. The baby apparently dove to escape the eagle; and the eagle must have taken off with the fish mom had been displaying. The mature eagle then flew off easterly from where it came, and disappeared around the corner into the woods.

Exciting, but it does not end. About 5 minutes later what I assume was the same mature eagle reappeared, and perched in a big pine tree on the south shore about 400' away from the 3 loons. In about another 5 minutes (how does one tell time when one is having so much fun?) an osprey flew in from its usual direction across the northeast corner of the lake. Hovering over the lake near the inlet (near the original loon nest), it dove and came up with a fish, again about 8" long. It headed back from where it came (since it comes from the same direction most of the time I assume there is a nearby nest) carrying the fish. Immediately, the eagle took off from its perch to intercept the osprey. As it neared the osprey the osprey cried out and the male loon again walked on the water, vocalized, and beat his wingtips on the water while “running” to the aid of the osprey. As the eagle neared the osprey, the osprey dropped the fish (the osprey never gained much altitude as it was still below the tree tops); which the eagle tried to retrieve, from the lake. The osprey started dive bombing the eagle, forcing it down into the water. The osprey dive bombed the eagle about a half dozen more times, and took off in the direction from where it originally came, presumably somewhat pissed. The male loon stopped its approach about 200' away from the eagle and osprey. The eagle seemed to rest for awhile. As it was in water to deep to apparently take flight, it walked to the shore. In about a minute, the eagle flew off without the fish. The male loon had since returned to mom and chick.

The end result - besides about 15 minutes of sheer delight - was the eagle got the fish from the loon, but did not retrieve the one from the osprey.

After the excitement, I went back up to the camp and pulled out the topo map. I scaled off the distance from the map covered by the osprey and the eagle; as I knew where the eagle was perched, about where the osprey caught the fish, and where the eagle caught up with the osprey. In the pursuit, the eagle covered about 1000' while the osprey was covering about 600'.

Time for breakfast and another coffee!

I made it a point to return to the lake at least once per week - even if only for 15 minutes - to check on the chick. It kept growing, though slower than I thought it should. One time during its early flight training, I heard what I thought was a lynx or bobcat on the far shore, meowing softly, until I noticed that the sound seemed to move with the mom and the chick (dad was almost always away goofing off). All of a sudden the chick took off and flew about 300'. Apparently mom was making a deep guttural sound, encouraging her chick to fly. The next time I was at the camp the chick flew and circled the lake three times. Dad had left by this time - or at least was not around. I was unable to get to camp the weekend of Nov. 3. By the next weekend mom and chick were no where to be seen. I expect (hope) they are swimming off of Schoodic Peninsula.

I’m going to forward this to The Cornell Lab. They ran an article in the Autumn issue of Living Bird about eagles stealing from ospreys. This puts a little different twist on it.

I doubt if I’ll ever see two geographic moments together like this again. Glad I had the one chance.

Bill Hersey..


Sandpiper said...

Interesting post. I went to a place called Loon Lake in either NH or ME (can't remember), and I didn't see a single loon. Just my luck! ;-) They are beautiful birds. Nice picture.

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