Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Montana Mother's Day

Mothers' Day dawned as a warm, blue-sky morning, so we celebrated by paddling our faded pink canoe around the lake to check on the neighbors. This is our holiday update on motherhood in northwestern Montana.

Nesting Common Loon (c) John Ashley
Mother Loon on her nest on Mother's Day morning
One of the adult Loons was incubating eggs on their reedy nest at the edge of the cattails. The adults are hard to tell apart, but we decided it must be the female because bird moms don't get holidays. Her beak was open slightly and she appeared to be panting in the windless heat, which both adults will need to patiently endure for another 17-18 days before their eggs hatch.

Loons normally lay two eggs, but sometimes only one and -- rarely -- three eggs. The 28 days of incubation is the passive portion of Loon parenthood. The real test begins on the morning after the last egg hatches. That's when the family will leave the nest for good, and the adults will have to defend their little chicks from the resident Bald Eagles, who also have young to feed.

Bald Eagle chicks in nest (c) John Ashley
Click to see two fuzzy Bald Eagle chicks
One of the adult Bald Eagles -- probably the male -- delivered a fish to their massive stick nest just as we floated past. The female began tearing off small pieces to feed to their two chicks. Both parents spent about the same amount of time incubated their eggs, but now the female will feed the chicks 80-90 percent of the time, and the male will do most of the hunting.

Eagle eggs hatch 1-2 days apart, and the elder chick should be about 8 days old today. Both of the wobbly chicks are standing up in the nest, just now becoming visible. The chicks have downy feathers, but both parents will take turns keeping the youngsters warm by brooding them about 80% of the time during their first 10 days. Time spent brooding will gradually decrease over the next six weeks, as the youngsters grow big enough to maintain their own body temperature. Before fledging from their nest, a female juvenile will be bigger and heavier than her father.

Male Bufflehead
We turned our old canoe towards home, passing a male Bufflehead on patrol at the mouth of the creek. Just a few days ago, we caught a glimpse of his mate flying into a hole in the old larch snag -- 40 feet off the ground. That's where she's doing her motherly duty, incubating their eggs in her high-rise nest. She makes a daily trip down to the lake where she'll feed and preen for an hour or two. While on the water, the male will mate-guard her from other Buffleheads. This protects his paternity while allowing her to forage more efficiently. It also allows him to avoid nest tending, but it exposes him to the hazards of fighting with the other male Buffleheads on patrol nearby.

Just a short distance uphill from the Bufflehead, thousands of Arctic Grayling were busy spawning in the little creek that flows into our lake. The adult males and females began working upstream two weeks ago, and their numbers are just now peaking in the neighborhood of 5,000 to 7,000 fish. It'll be another two weeks before they've all returned to the lake. Spawning in the shallow creek is dangerous and difficult, but most of the grayling will survive to spawn another day.

Arctic Grayling spawning in a western Montana stream (c) John Ashley
A male Arctic Grayling (front) fertilizes the eggs released by a female (rear) in a shallow stream.

Grayling don't spawn until they're 2 to 5 years old, and they only live for 5 or 6 years. When they move up into the spawning stream, the dominant, older males defend territories over the best gravel beds for almost a week, while the females swim freely among them. Instead of excavating "reds" in the gravel, they will broadcast spawn. The female swims up next to the male(s) of her choice, and both will begin a trembling dance -- the result of straining to squeeze out the eggs and sperm that briefly mingle before settling into the tiny crevices between the rocks and gravel.

After the tiny fry hatch, they'll spend 3 to 4 days hiding in the gravel before emerging to swim up or downstream to a refuge. Fry disproportionately select stream reaches that have slower, shallower water with some sort of vegetative cover. The limbs and branches will help to hide them from the eyes of our resident Kingfishers, at least until they are big enough to swim down to the lake.

Female Belted Kingfisher
(c) John Ashley
Female Belted Kingfisher
As we slowly paddled our canoe towards home, the female Kingfisher flew over and announced her presence with a rattling call. We're smiling now -- it was exactly one year ago today that we released a female Kingfisher who needed rehabilitation after she'd flown into a window. She and her mate spent last summer catching crawdads along our shore, but they apparently did not nest.

Could this bird be her?  Is she nesting in the neighborhood this year?  Will we get to watch her feeding youngsters sometime soon?

Last year, watching the Kingfisher fly from our hands made Mothers' Day for both of us. This year, watching her fly over our canoe was just the icing on a many-layered cake.