Sunday, June 17, 2012

Big Daddies

I wrote a pleasant little story for Fathers' Day, and one week early to boot. I explained how our current Loon dad is better at raising his young than the previous Loon dad. And I described how he kept his offspring warm and well-fed. About how he was big enough and aggressive enough to protect his little chick.

Did I mention that I wrote it a week early?

A few days before Fathers' Day, one of the resident Bald Eagles snatched the week-old Loon chick from the water's surface. It wasn't supposed to end this way, I thought. But watching wild animals means learning to distinguish between natural behaviors and human judgements.

'BigDaddy' Loon covers his chick with a wing (c) John Ashley
Our "Big Daddy" Loon covering his chick under a wing last week.
Here at the end of the road, Big Daddy rules over our little lake with a keen eye and a big beak. For the past three summers, he's been the resident male of our nesting Loon pair. His kingdom isn't big enough to share with another pair. Loons are very territorial, especially Big Daddy.

Before his arrival, the previous Loon pair failed to raise any chicks after the Bald Eagles moved in and built a nest of their own. Just as soon as the Loon chicks hatched, the Eagles would take notice. The two Eagles tag-teamed the Loon parents, stooping at them repeatedly. These previous Loons would do what they always did to avoid danger - dive underwater. But this left their chick bobbing alone on the surface, unprotected, and it seldom lasted more than a day.

Enter Big Daddy.

He was unbanded upon arrival, so we don't know where he came from. But Big Daddy was visibly larger and more aggressive than any other Loon we'd seen on the lake. He apparently claimed this territory by chasing off the previous pair, along with a number of visiting Loons.

We were never sure if he already had a mate, or if he courted a female after winning the territory. Loons are monogamous, with new pairs typically forming on the breeding territory and established pairs rejoining there each spring. Loon courtship is a ritualized form of aggression, and it's hard (for us, at least) to distinguish courtship from hostility.

Once this new, more aggressive pair moved in, we watched and waited through almost a month of incubation. We were dreading a repeat of previous years. Loon chicks often hatch at night, and an early-morning commotion across the lake got everyone's attention. Eagles screeching, Loons yodelling, water splashing - and me paddling across in our faded canoe.

But that first year, Big Daddy carried the day!

Each time the Eagles stooped to drive the Loons away, Big Daddy lept skyward instead of diving underwater, stabbing at the attackers with his long beak. The Eagles broke off their attack before I made it across the lake. During the next week, the Eagles attempted a few more attacks that declined in number and effort. 

Nowadays, as soon as any Eagle leaves a branch anywhere on his lake, Big Daddy yodels his alarm before scooping up the chick and hiding him under a protective wing. One pair of Bald Eagles can't catch this dad off duty.

That first summer, Big Daddy and his mate hatched one egg and fledged one youngster. When he was banded later that summer, Big Daddy weighed in at a whopping 11.44 pounds (5200 kg). (Adult Bald Eagles in Montana weigh 9 to 14 pounds.) He weighed three pounds more than his mate, moving Big Daddy into third place all-time for Montana Loons. The business end of his beak measured just over 3.25 inches (82.6 mm) long, and that was two years ago.

Last summer, Big Daddy tried to do it all. His mate vanished mysteriously on the very night that their first egg hatched. Big Daddy alternated between feeding the first chick, incubating the second egg, and chasing off visiting Loons. For three days. In the cold and rain. But even this super-dad couldn't do it alone. After dark on the third night, the little Loon chick disappeared, and we never found any clues to his demise.

Early the next morning, Big Daddy allowed an adult Loon to swim up to the nest, where he was still attempting to hatch a second egg. But his mate had returned one day too late. After a few more days, they gave up on the second, apparently non-viable egg. They abandoned their nest and eventually left their lake to spend winter somewhere along the Pacific coast.

Loon parents feeding their three-day old chick in the rain (c) John Ashley
Our Loons feeding their three-day old chick last week in the rain.

This summer, Big Daddy looked to be in charge again.

Once again, he and his mate hatched one chick. They tended the little guy through a precarious first few days of cold rain and snow squalls. He received a steady diet of tiny insects with an occasional leach thrown in. (Big Daddy had to fetch the leech a couple of times before the little guy figured out how to gulp it down.) At three days old we watched him make his first brief dive underwater - but it wasn't enough.

On the morning on his eighth day, three extra adult Loons appeared approached the nursery area and the resident Loon family. This set off a cacophony of Loon yodels and counter-yodels. And all of this racket caught the attention of the Bald Eagle pair.

What happened next is not exactly clear. Several different neighbors reported several different versions of the event. But somehow, while the parent Loons were distracted by the trespassing Loons, the Bald Eagles swept in and snatched the Loon chick amid the confusion.

Once again, despite Big Daddy's best efforts, no young Loons will grow up on his lake this summer. The trespassing Loons left the lake. The resident Loons left the nursery area and began feeding farther apart. One would call out occasionally, but they gradually grew quiet.

Non-viable Loon egg (c) John Ashley
This year's 2nd Loon egg
We eventually paddled our faded red canoe across the lake, over to the marshy area where the Loons had nested. Floating next to their nest was an intact, olive-green egg. It fell out of the nest somehow, and no one knows if it was before or after the first chick hatched. We collected the egg (it will be sent to Maine for analysis) and removed the area closure signs.

A few days later, I searched the ground around the giant larch tree, an area I normally avoid. I found a few fish bones and lots of whitewash under the massive Bald Eagle nest, but no Loon parts. I wondered, might the little guy might be up there in the nest?

But when we peered into the eagle nest from some distance away, we had to manage a smile. Through the binoculars we could easily make out two clumsy, comical, brown lumps of feathers.

Two baby Bald Eagles.

Regardless of our human judgements, there are also Big Daddy Bald Eagles, doing what Eagles do, working to keep their chicks fed.

Removing Loon area closure signs (c) John Ashley
We removed the area closure signs for another year. The Loon nest is the brown mat just right of the canoe bow.