Sunday, August 7, 2022

August 7, 2022: More About Bobcats

The Lake Wicwas Association held its annual meeting yesterday at the Wicwas Grange in Meredith Center; it was well attended with lots of catching up with friends over coffee and treats before the meeting began.  The featured speaker this year was Patrick Tate, wildlife biologist at the New Hampshire Fish and Game department who provided a presentation on the life and habits of New Hampshire's bobcats.

NH Fish and Game wildlife biologist Patrick Tate speaks about bobcats in New Hampshire.
Photo by Shayne Duggan.

One of the new things I learned is that bobcats have a very "plastic" diet, which means they readily change their diet based on the availability of prey.  In some years white-tail deer are their primary food source and in other years it's small animals such as squirrels.  But they are true carnivores, completely dependent on catching other animals for their sustenance - no veggies for them.  Tate also explained that bobcats were considered primarily southern animals but have moved north and now occupy all of New Hampshire except for the white mountains.  Unlike other far-northern species such as the snowshoe hare and the lynx, bobcat do not have large paws to let them hunt efficiently on deep, dry snow, so they aren't found at high elevations in the mountains.  Tate also described how to identify their tracks - round footprints with round toes prints absent claws - as well as their preferred habitat which includes the edges of wetlands and the margins of farms.

A bobcat print seen near the shores of Lake Wicwas.

We'll all know a bit more about these wild felines when we see them around the lake in the future.  Many thanks to all who attended and helped organize the meeting and asked Mr. Tate such great questions about bobcats.

We also had a very successful silent auction, raising over $2000 for the Lake Host program.  Another big thank you to all who donated items for the auction!

A sunfish donated by the Larsens and prepped by Dean Cascadden was the headliner for the auction.

The loons have captured most of the attention around the lake for the past few weeks and there's still a lot going on with them, but they're not the only birds that are active this time of year.  The songs on my morning walks have changed noticeably, as the spring calls of warblers have been replaced by the sweet summer song of the Hermit Thrush and the tireless singing of the red-eyed vireo which can sing non-stop for an hour at a time even on the hottest summer day.  Both of these birds are difficult to find as they sing from thick brush or in high tree tops, but I know they're in there.  Here's a good look I got of a vireo on a mid-summer day a few years ago.  

Red-eyed vireo singing from its perch in a hemlock.

Both the belted kingfisher and the eastern kingbird are very visible and active, darting around as they catch insects on the wing.  I watched a nice acrobatic air show put on by the kingbirds one morning on the kayak.

It's also high butterfly season.  Monarchs are in the fields at the Page Pond Town Forest where milkweed is starting to appear.  The great-spangled fritillaries are sipping nectar from clover, and the pearl crescent butterfly is doing the same on bright orange hawkweed.

Pearl crescent on hawkweed.

Great-spangled fritillary on a clover blossom.
Sipping nectar through its long hollow proboscis.

On these hot August days the mammals are much less active, but I do see momma deer and her fawn regularly out browsing early on cool mornings before the heat arrives.  (Still no pictures though.)

In the July 24 post I mentioned an injured loon that was observed on the lake.  Since then multiple sightings were received and it looked weak enough that the LPC biologist came and searched the lake to assess it but the loon couldn't be located.  Finally, last week, the bird had beached itself and a couple of intrepid volunteers were able to capture and safely contain it - the loon was very weak and didn't provide any resistance.  The biologist was alerted and came immediately to pick it up and bring it to a rehabilitator in Concord.  Unfortunately, the veterinarian decided the loon was too badly injured, and it had to be euthanized.  

I don't know if we'll get any further information, but from descriptions of its condition it seems it had been involved in a lot of fighting with another loon.  But there is happy loon-news on the lake:  I don't have a recent photo of her, but Maddie was reported on Saturday to be healthy and growing by leaps and bounds.  

Now that the fighting on the lake has passed, is there a better life than that of a loon, spending these hot august days floating on the lake and savoring those steamy, crimson summer sunsets? 

A waxing gibbous moon watches over scarlet clouds after Saturday's storms passed.

Hopefully I'll have a picture of Maddie for the next journal entry.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

July 31, 2022: Midnight Banding

Wednesday night the Loon Preservation Committee decided to attempt to band the new loon pair (Maddie's parents) that has taken up residency in Harris Cove.  I've assumed this is the same pair that has been on the lake since 2016 but without bands we don't really know.  A team of four from the LPC arrived by boat and were joined by a few Lake Wicwas volunteers.  The team staged on the Thorpe's beach who kindly allowed the activity to take place there.  

Amy Wilson calms the male loon for banding.
(Banding photos by Amy Wilson, Russ Brummer, and Scott Powell)

The loon family was very accommodating, close together and visible from the staging area in the dimming twilight, and we did our best to keep an eye on them until it was dark enough to attempt a capture.  (Banding can't be done in day light or even with a full moon because the loons see the boat coming and swim away.)  With the arrival of total darkness they set out in the boat with a spotlight and a large net. 

A white breast on a dark lake stands out like a beacon in the spotlight and the family was quickly located.  As the boat approaches, loons tend to freeze like a deer in headlights, and one parent was gently scooped up in the net and then quickly wrapped in a soft towel to prevent it from injuring itself or the biologists.  The second loon was left to watch over the chick.  

Once on shore the bird was quickly measured, and by the dimensions of the leg measurements, it was deduced this was the male. 

The length and width of the left and right tarsus bones were measured.

Bands of the proper size to fit on each leg were selected and carefully placed.
A unique combination of colors will identify each loon.

Next a blood sample was taken to test for lead as well as other factors.

The scene was what I envision a military MASH unit looks like.

Feathers were carefully clipped from the tail and one wing - a very specific feather:  one of the secondaries, without which it can still fly.  The feathers will be tested for mercury among other things.

Locating the correct secondary feather to clip.

Clipping a tail feather.  Note the silver band which has the bird's ID number on it.

Note that clipping feathers doesn't hurt the birds; it's like us cutting hair or fingernails.  

Finally the bird was weighed and then released right at the shore and within minutes it was back with mom and chick.  All of the data was carefully recorded along with the band colors and numbers.

After a short wait the team went back out see if they could collect the female as well, which they accomplished just as quickly as the first capture, and were also able to catch Maddie!

Maddie, 11 days old, the ideal age to band new parents.

Mom was a little more stressed out than dad was, perhaps because she could hear Maddie calling on occasion, so the female was measured, banded, and weighed quickly, and returned back to the lake - no feathers were collected from her.

Russ Brummer holds the female for banding.

This time the two loons (mom and Maddie) were taken out in the boat to the vicinity of the male loon to make sure mom and chick would stay together, and within a few minutes the family was calling and reunited.  I wonder what goes through their heads after that experience - it must feel like being abducted by aliens, taken to their spaceship for examination, and then being released.  

You probably noticed people are wearing masks.  That's not due to covid, but rather to protect people from an avian flu that is present in New England.  It's most prevalent in birds that spend time in large flocks such as geese, but it's a simple precaution worth taking.  The event ended just before midnight, at which point the LPC team was heading off to another lake to repeat the whole procedure.  It's a busy time for a loon biologist!

It was a very successful night on Lake Wicwas and now all four of our nesting loons are identifiable.  If you are ever at the ocean in winter, keep an eye out for loons and if you see one, look for bands.  It would be interesting to know where our loons spend the winter!

The following morning I went out to check on the family and I found them all together, happily fishing for breakfast.  

The parents were mostly bringing small fish to Maddie along with an occasional piece of vegetation - she must eat her vegetables you know.

"Time to eat your veggies"

At one point mom brought a fish to Maddie that was far too big for her.  (It's nice to know which parent was doing each feeding.)

Bringing in an oversize fish for Maddie.
 Maddie did take a hold of it, but decided it was too much. 

Mom watches carefully to make sure Maddie doesn't choke on the oversize fish.

So eventually mother kept it for herself.
Even for mom it was quite a mouthful.

At one point I saw dad rise up and spread its wings and I could clearly see the spot left by the missing secondary feather that was clipped the night before.

"Wow dad, you're big."
Note the white spot on the right wing where the missing secondary feather should be.

"Will I ever be like you?"

The story of the injured loon continues to unfold, but that will have to wait until next week when we have more information.  For now, we'll enjoy our little Maddie.
Maddie, yesterday, 2 weeks old.  Photo by Debby Crowley.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

July 24, 2022: Loon Overload

The loon activity has been way over the top this past week.  It began with reports by two observant parties of a loon acting strangely on the lake - just floating for long periods of time and not diving or fishing.  Though loons can act like this, the local LPC loon biologist asked me to go out and investigate, and if I could find the suspect loon, instructed me to approach it slowly to see if it would dive.  It took me two searches of the lake before I found the right loon, hanging close to shore far away from the other loons on the lake, with a leg held out in an awkward position.  

An unusual pose for a loon.

I've often seen loons wag their foot, sometimes for a minute or longer (the reason why they do this isn't known, but one theory is for temperature management) but never in this position with the whole leg exposed.  I did approach the loon slowly, and it continued to hold that foot out and it did not dive.  It did however swim away from me, but only using one foot. 

I've never seen a loon try to swim with only one foot paddling.

Any time I've seen a loon weigh anchor and get underway it has always used both paddles, and this poor bird swimming along using just one foot told me something wasn't right.  By the time I found it in the late afternoon the LPC biologists were preparing for night time banding, so a mission to assess the bird had to wait until the next morning when I met two of the biologists who came prepared with a large net to capture the injured bird for assessment and possible treatment.  

We were able to locate the bird in just about the same location, but it took a moment to be sure because now the questionable leg wasn't held in the air, but rather flat against the water, thought still looking unnatural.  But this time, as we approached, the bird dove!  And I was able to watch it swim rather swiftly under the water.  After watching a second dive the biologists determined the bird was healing quickly and was able to again catch fish and defend itself, so it was decided to let it be.  They asked those who first reported the concern to keep an eye on it, and thanked them for their quick action in reporting the injury.

I asked the LPC team what might have caused an injury like this and the two likely causes are a fight with another loon - a battling loon will grab hold of any body part it can get - or a snapping turtle with a big appetite.  They told of story when someone observed a loon struggling in the water, unable to swim, until it finally escaped the grasp of a large turtle.  That would hurt a leg!

While the LPC biologists were here we toured the entire lake, surveyed the loons present (six), inspected both loon nests, and collected the shell fragments from Maddie's egg.  

LPC biologist Caroline Hughes searches (unsuccessfully) for signs of an egg at the Marion Cove nest while summer intern Tayor Tewksbury records GPS coordinates.

Every last shell fragment of Maddies's egg was carefully collected from the Harris Cove nest.

The next loon event was a two day, maybe longer, battle between two loons, one of which was the banded female from the nest in Marion Cove.  The first time I watched them they spent well over an hour battling each other in the cove.  They were circling, diving, chasing, at one point right up against the shore.  They progressed all the way around the cove and were still going after each other as they went out of sight.  

The next day the same thing occurred.  I can only assume it's two females fighting.  I understand that male loons secure and defend a mating territory while the females fight over a male.  So perhaps a new female has arrived and the banded female is trying to drive her off to defend her position with the banded male.  Or perhaps the intruder is trying to drive off the current female to take over its mate - it's impossible to tell who's the antagonist, but it's been going on long enough that I'm starting to wonder if it will continue until the weaker bird is exhausted and perhaps killed.  

The injured loon was reported before I saw these encounters, so perhaps it was injured in an earlier fight, but  it would have had to heal well enough to go back to fight again.  This scenario is hard to watch, but it was only last year that this very same banded female drove off our previous mate to the banded male, and that female (which was also banded) hasn't been seen since.  

Our present female drove off our long-term nesting female last summer.  She's very proud of her jewelry.

As I said last week, it's a tough life, being a loon.

Immediately following four weeks of nest duty it appears loons are hungry.  I watched one of the northern-pair loons play with a huge sunfish it caught in order to subdue it sufficiently to swallow it whole. 

A big sunfish.

It caught the fish, thrashed it around, released it, caught it again and repeated the process for several minutes.
Wearing the fish out by catching it again and again.

It made one attempt to swallow it but decided it was still too lively. 
Not this time.

So the loon played with it for another minute or two before it finally managed to send it down to its gizzard.
Down it goes.
Talk about getting a fish bone stuck in your throat!

Imagine swallowing a whole fish, bones, scales, and all, and digesting it in your stomach.  No wonder they swallow small stones (and sometimes lead sinkers) to help grind up their food.

And this came in late Saturday:  Another loon observer (thank you CF!) reported a loon on the side of Chemung Road near the lake.  Dave and Marge Thorpe went right out to investigate and found the loon no longer on the road, but in the thick weeds close to the road.  It did make its way back out to the lake on its own.  Could this be the injured loon from earlier in the week?  Just another mystery on the lake.

And of course, there is Maddie.

Maddie goes for a ride.

As of late Saturday she is doing fine and her parents are already taking her on long excursions away from the nest.  She's being fed well, is growing quickly, and evidently being kept well away from the other loons; she has been consistently observed with her parents way over on the west side of the lake along the Hamlin conservation area where no loons have nested recently.  
A little fish for a little loon.

It seems they moved the family over there to distance themselves from all the drama taking place on the lake.

That's too much loon action for one week, so as not to go on too long, I'll just add few pictures from a morning walk along Chemung Rd. (Happily, no loons were seen on the road.)

Meadowsweet on the side of the road.

A gray catbird sings good morning.
A bowl and doily spider web snags small insects.
Eastern chipmunk on lookout.

All of these were along just a quarter mile stretch of Chemung Road by the Chemung State Forest.  One doesn't have to travel deep into the forest to find interesting sights!

Photo and caption by Debby Crowley.