Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Conflict Avoidance: loons and loons
A non-breeding loon, a.k.a intruder, was observed on 35-acre Zack Woods Pond several times this June. The bird was identifiable by the color-bands on its legs. (I have contacted BioDiversity Research Institute to find out where this loon was originally banded.) On 7 July, Alexis, a Green River State Park intern, found this loon 30 feet from the water on the main path to the pond. Loons usually beach themselves only when they are sick, injured, or exhausted from chases with other loons. I drove down an hour later but the bird had left the access area. We found the loon on another shoreline, but while I was taking a photo, it clamored back into the water. Its first dive was over 40 seconds long, a sign the loon was relatively healthy. Diseased and compromised loons often never dive, and if they do, the dives are usually short and shallow. The bird also had a strong wing flap when preening showing no signs of wing injury. Alexis thought the bird must be hurting because it floated so low in the water. A loon pair on a small pond like Zack Woods will pursue an intruder until it leaves; this bird was keeping a low profile.
Two days later, Sue Premo and Phil Etter, founders of the Friends of Zack Woods Pond, made at trip to check on the bird. In the glare of the sunrise, Sue almost tripped over the loon not seeing it until too late. The loon proceeded to climb up behind an exposed tree root 100 feet down the shore, where I found it four hours later. I thought the bird was dead. It wasn’t. After placing it in a cardboard box, the loon proceeded to peck huge holes in the box indicating that was full of life.
My hunch is that this loon had been exploring the idea of a takeover but lost. He or she was now too exhausted to actually take flight from the pond and any activity on the open water to preen, fish, or try to fly would bring on another chase from the resident pair. It had had enough and beached itself to avoid conflict. We also discovered that one eye was cloudy in color based on a photo taken by Phil Etter. Dr. Mark Pokras, Tufts University Wildlife Veterinarian, thinks the eye might be blind from a traumatic cataract obtained in a loon fight. Can a one-eyed loon survive? To give it the best chance, I released the loon across the road on 20-acre Mud Pond where hopefully it can be at peace from chases and either recover or live out its days. A week after we caught and moved the loon (July 15), it was still swimming about Mud Pond, but did look like it was having difficulty catching food. The loon was not diving, just swimming with its head down trying to nab minnows. We usually allow “natural” conflicts like this to play out on their own, but it’s also human nature to assist when we have the chance. I wish there was more we could do, but sometimes we have to just sit back and watch.
Other loons in trouble:
Volunteers on Seymour Lake were able to catch a loon that had become entangled in ribbons, string, and other remnants of 4th of July festivities. Ron Frascoia had assisted me about 10 years ago catching a loon caught in fishing line, thus he knew the basic procedures. Thanks Ron and friends for giving that loon a second chance. Another loon was reportedly caught in fishing line on Echo Lake in Charleston, but today George Thompson and I found six healthy adults. Hopefully the line fell off. And another loon is lethargic near shore on Peacham Pond this morning because of territorial battles. Hopefully that situation will resolve itself.