Squam Lake Loon Report: Chicks growing fast!

Good news—the chicks of the Squam Lakes continue to do well! There have been several cases of other loons intruding on a couple of the families recently, but the parents have been able to battle them off—I hope that continues! The chicks are growing fast and range in age from 5-7.5 weeks right now, with several of the older chicks losing their down and getting their regular feathers. So, our totals for the week remain at 1 chick on Little Squam and 4 chicks on Squam Lake.

If you’ve been wanting to get on a loon cruise this summer, there are just a few more weeks to join us! Loon cruises are offered through a partnership between the Loon Preservation Committee and our friends at the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center. They run each Monday and Friday afternoon at 3:00 through the end of August and give people a chance to see loons and learn about them. For more information, please visit https://www.nhnature.org/programs/loon_cruise.php.

Please join us for a volunteer potluck at the Loon Center on Thursday, August 22nd, at 6 PM! This is our chance to say “Thank You!” to all our wonderful volunteers, so we’d love to have you join us! This will be followed by the end-of-season report by Loon Preservation Committee’s Senior Biologist, Harry Vogel, at 7:00—our first chance to hear how the summer went for loons in New Hampshire! Even if you can’t make the potluck, please come for Harry’s talk. Please see the attached flyer for more information. Hope to see you on the 22nd!

We will continue our “What are those (crazy!) loons doing??!?” series with a look at why you might be seeing groups of 4-14 loons out and about at this time of the year. What is going on with these loon gatherings? Please see the P.S. below to find out! As always, please contact me with any questions, concerns, or reports, and please report any sick, injured, or dead loons to the Loon Preservation Committee at (603) 476-5666.

Thank you for your interest in Squam’s loons!

P.S. “What are those (crazy!) loons doing??!?”—Social gatherings: We’re all used to the idea that loons are solitary birds and don’t like other loons, right? We see them in their pairs and we know they defend their territory against other loons. Later in the fall, we might see them grouping up before migration, but the received wisdom is that loons wouldn’t be in groups other than for migration. It turns out that this is\ true only to a point—because those groups of loons that you see from mid-July through August are, in fact, social gatherings, loons just hanging out. Who would have thought?!?

The received wisdom about loons as “anti-social” birds is only true in so far as it goes. Loons, of course, are territorial birds; and as long as the potential for nesting and raising young exists, loons don’t want other loons in their territories. But once that potential is over with—whether the pair didn’t nest, lost their nest and have decided against nesting again, or lost their chicks—loons will start socializing with other loons. These are loons with no responsibilities whatsoever and have nothing better to do than socialize!

Social gatherings comprise anything from 4-14+ loons and include both males and females. They will come in from across Squam as well as surrounding lakes and spend time together for several hours before returning to their “home” territories. A number of years ago, I saw the banded female from Red Hill Pond on Squam in a social gathering. A few weeks ago, I saw a gathering of 9 loons that included both members of the Kimball Island pair, the Moultonborough Bay female, the ex-Mink Island female, and 5 unbanded loons. Loons will gather in a “neutral zone” of the lake (i.e., an area of the lake that is not part of a loon territory), or a portion of the lake that is in a loon territory but the pair is no longer actively defending it because the breeding potential for the year is over. As the loons are meeting up, they will do a lot of hooting to each other, their single note call that is essentially loon chatter (see last week’s edition of “What are those (crazy!) loons doing??!?” to learn more about the hoot and other calls). The initial meeting among loons can include a healthy degree of distrust, especially among loons who don’t know each other very well. You may see some circling, diving, and peering in the water, as the loons size each other up and figure out whether they are going to get along or not. Sometimes social gatherings do end in a scuffle, but usually the loons settle in and decide to get along with each other. Once they’ve met up, social gatherings include a lot of swimming along, hooting to each other.

But it is not necessarily all completely innocent socializing. There is some evidence that loons are scoping out potential future territories for them to takeover while in these groupings, and perhaps seeking strength in numbers to test the defenses of existing pairs. After all, the loons in these gatherings are the “losers” of the loon world—they weren’t successful this year and don’t have chicks to care for. They may be looking for a better territory—and a chick is the ultimate sign of a better territory. Last year, the Kimball Island pair had two chicks. In early August, a group of 9 loons started putting pressure on the pair, intruding into their territory, and finally one of their chicks was killed during a coordinated attack by these 9 loons. This was a calculated assault to try to weaken the pair in the hopes that one or two of the group could take over the territory. Over the next several weeks, the pair and their remaining chick endured near-constant intrusions, and I was terrified the remaining chick would be killed. Fortunately, the parents hung on and the chick survived. But loons have long memories; and, as the Kimball pair settled into nesting this year, they soon drew the attention of intruders as well, who likely remembered that they had two chicks last year. The near constant intrusions while they were trying to incubate finally forced the Kimball pair to abandon their nest. It wasn’t long after their nest failure that the Kimball pair turned up in a social group too.

But most social gatherings are simply that—a social gathering! It is an extraordinary sight to see so many loons together and always fascinating to watch their interactions and behaviors. So as you’re boating around the lake, keep your eyes open for groups of loons—you never know where the party might be!

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