With a bike helmet squashed over my unusually bushy hair (it hasn’t been this long since 2009!) I started to open the door. The bright orange of my bike panier caught my eye, and I hesitated only a second before dropping my camera in and taking it with me. Racing like a NASCAR driver—mosquitoes swarming viciously—I mounted my bike and launched down the driveway. After a shrug of my shoulders to dislodge the hangers-on, I was bug-free and enjoying a cool evening breeze of my own making.
Ten minutes later the mosquitoes swarmed again as I pulled over where the loon nest becomes visible through the shoreline vegetation. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the scourge of black flies that drove this loon pair off of their nest—leaving two eggs behind to fail. Since then, Walter Piper has reported on his Loon Project blog that up to 80% of loon nests in the area were abandoned in early to mid-May; all or mostly due to the clouds of loon-specific black flies who hung around longer than usual due to our cool spring weather. That makes this spring’s black fly outbreak even worse than the one we had in 2014, when 70% of first nesting attempts were aborted.
Even through my dusty sunglasses, I could see the distinct silhouette of a loon on the nest. Yes! With the help of my camera’s zoom, I discovered that she wasn’t just sitting there. The loon on the nest was actively reaching out with her beak and pulling more nesting materials up toward her.
I say “her” because nest building is one of the few activities that can tell us if a loon is male or female. They look exactly alike, and even though males tend to be larger, on average, that’s neither easy to see nor completely reliable. In their remarkably egalitarian relationship, loon parents share incubation and childcare duties 50-50. However, there are a few divisions of labor based on sex.
Loons all over the Northwoods have returned to their nests for a second attempt—now that the black flies have died down. They remain vulnerable to many other types of disturbance. Photo by Emily Stone.
Male loons pick the nest site. This place-based responsibility is one reason that they are so tied to a specific territory and will return to it year after year. Males also give the wildly fierce yodel call to defend their territory. Female loons build the nest, and for obvious reasons, lay the eggs. So, I feel that I can safely call the loon who is adding materials to the nest “her.”
A few days later I returned to the nest again, and found one loon incubating calmly, while the other preened and stretched nearby. This is a very good sign.
Loon chicks hatch right around July 4th, and fireworks—especially those thrown directly into the water—can send them scooting awkwardly, and dangerously, into the woods. Photo by Emily Stone.
While I’m glad that they’ve managed a second nesting attempt, I’m still worried for this expectant couple. Their nest is low to the water, and near a busy boat landing. The heavy boat traffic we’re seeing up here already this summer can result in boat wakes that wash eggs out of the nest, nervous parents that leave the nest for their own safety, and an increased danger of a loon swallowing a sinker or lead jig and dying of lead poisoning.
Bugs, lead, and boat wakes are not the only threats to loons. Marge Gibson, Executive Director of the Raptor Education Group, Inc. (REGI) wildlife rehab center in Antigo, Wisconsin, has many horror stories about birds and other wildlife injured during fireworks displays. Loons are just hatching around July 4, and loud noises can startle them. Even more devastating is when people throw fireworks into the lake itself, to cause an underwater explosion. The reverberations from that can deafen a swimming loon. Marge has found both adult and juvenile loons scooting on their bellies (they can’t really walk on land) far into the woods because they were so frightened on the lake.
Loons aren’t the only iconic Northwoods species impacted by fireworks. “Young eagles start to fledge right around July 4,” she continued. “They are often teetering on the side of nest, not quite ready to fly. A nearby explosion from fireworks can cause them to leave the nest prematurely, and at night.” There’s a high chance they’ll collide with something in the dark, or fall to the ground and be injured. Every year REGI receives young eagles with broken wings and other injuries as a result of fireworks. Some don’t survive.
This juvenile bald eagle is at a vulnerable stage. Loud fireworks nearby could send him crashing out of the nest before he’s truly ready. Photo by Emily Stone.
Longer-term issues are caused by the carcinogenic elements (the ones that make cool colors when they burn) that fireworks add to our lakes, and the litter of plastic casings that can sneak into the food chain, causing malnutrition problems.
This year’s unique situation, with some people limiting their contact with people outside of their household, and others eager to gather in groups, means that Marge is more worried than ever about an increased number of individual fireworks having impacts on wildlife. “The Northwoods aren’t an amusement park,” she explained. “It’s a different habitat up here, with lots of sensitive species that nest low and on the ground. Residents and visitors alike need to respect it and treat it with care.”
That doesn’t mean skipping fireworks altogether, though. Just stick to the small stuff—like sparklers—at home, and save the big fireworks for municipal displays that have safety measures in place, impact limited areas for a limited time, and entertain a lot of people all at once. Essentially, they have more bang for their buck. The big fireworks are illegal for private use in most places anyway, although the laws and ordinances are not well enforced.
“Destroying wildlife, and especially killing eagles, on the Fourth of the July just doesn’t seem American!” said Marge. With a little bit of consideration for species other than our own, Independence Day can be fun for humans and less harmful to our national emblem.
Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books. Or order it from our friends at redberybooks.com to receive free shipping!
For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is currently closed due to COVID-19, but we're still building our new exhibit and bringing you educational content. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to see what we are up to.