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World's oldest known common loon pair returns to Michigan's U.P. for 26th year together

Two loons offering prey items to their week-old chick in July 2020 on a pool at Seney National Wildlife Refuge.
Courtesy
/
Lima Bean
The loons, ABJ and Fe, have hatched 32 chicks during their quarter century-long partnership.

Celebrating 25 years of a relationship is a big milestone, and it’s an even bigger deal for a pair of common loons that spend part of the year in Michigan.

The two birds have nested together at the Seney National Wildlife Refuge in the Upper Peninsula for a quarter century and are back this spring for their 26th year as a breeding pair.

The non-profit Common Coast Research & Conservation has been monitoring the loon population at the refuge for decades. WKAR's spoke with Damon McCormick, a wildlife biologist with the organization, about the birds.

Interview Highlights

On the partnership of the loons

They are the two oldest documented common loons known. And as you mentioned, they paired together in 1997. Fe had previously been with a different male, and ABJ battled and evicted that resident. And Fe and ABJ formed a partnership, and they've been together since. And in addition to being the longest-running partnership with the species, they're also the most productive. They've hatched 32 chicks together.

On why this loon pairing is somewhat unique

One of the earliest revelations of the work at Seney was in fact that loons do not mate for life. There's, in a healthy population, there's all kinds of competition, so pairs are constantly dealing with intrusions from unpaired birds. So, there's a lot of turnover, and we have other loons on the refuge who have gone through five, six, even seven mates. So, their fidelity is somewhat unusual.

On one of the threats to the loons on the refuge

Botulism appeared in the Great Lakes in Lake Erie and Ontario around 1998 and in northern Lake Michigan in 2006. And since that time, there have been periodic severe outbreaks in the autumn that have killed thousands of common loons, and these outbreaks, they occur annually, but the severity has been kind of all over the place.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: Celebrating 25 years of a relationship is a big milestone, and it’s an even bigger deal for a pair of common loons that spend part of the year in Michigan.

The two birds have nested together at the Seney National Wildlife Refuge in the Upper Peninsula for a quarter century and are back this spring for their 26th year as a breeding pair.

Common Coast Research & Conservation has been monitoring the loon population at the refuge for decades, and Damon McCormick is a wildlife biologist with the organization. I talked to him last week and started by asking him about the history of monitoring the pair of birds.

Damon McCormick: So, Seney Wildlife Refuge was the first place where common loons were color-marked, that is banded in a safe and reliable manner. And that work began back in 1987 and has continued largely uninterrupted for three or four decades.

Among the earliest birds banded on the refuge were ABJ, a 35-year-old male or who will be 35 this year rather, and he was banded as a chick in 1987. And several years later, the female that we know as Fe, who will be turning at least 36 this season was banded as an adult. At the time, she was a successful mother. So, with the ABJ, we know his precise age because he was banded as a youngling chick. With Fe, we only know that she was at least four at the time, because that's the minimum age of reproduction for common loons.

Fe had previously been with a different male, and ABJ battled and evicted that resident. And Fe and ABJ formed a partnership, and they've been together since.

And they are the two oldest documented common loons known. And as you mentioned, they paired together in 1997. Fe had previously been with a different male, and ABJ battled and evicted that resident. And Fe and ABJ formed a partnership, and they've been together since.

And in addition to being the longest-running partnership with the species, they're also the most productive. They've hatched 32 chicks together.

Saliby: Is it typical for loons to kind of stick with one partner for a long period of time like this pair?

McCormick: One of the earliest revelations of the work at Seney was in fact that loons do not mate for life. There's, in a healthy population, there's all kinds of competition, so pairs are constantly dealing with intrusions from unpaired birds.

So, there's a lot of turnover, and we have other loons on the refuge who have gone through five, six, even seven mates. So, their fidelity is somewhat unusual.

They do, I should add, they are what's called serially monogamous. So, in any one season, you only have one pairing unlike lots of other bird species.

Saliby: So, they've been seen together again this year. Have they coupled up yet?

McCormick: They have. When they were initially spotted last week, they were actually occupying different pools. Seney is a collection of artificial impoundments that were created back in the 30s and 40s. And they were seen on adjacent pools, which was a little bit unusual.

But more recently, we've confirmed that they have reunited on their long-term pool which is called F. And they will probably be dealing with challenges in the coming days and weeks, but the expectation is they'll be nesting probably early May.

Saliby: Can you talk about overall trends in the loon population at the wildlife refuge?

McCormick: Prior to the appearance of Type E botulism on the Great Lakes, if a loon left Seney in the autumn to migrate south for the winter, there was about a 97% chance that it would return in the spring. Unfortunately, botulism appeared in the Great Lakes in Lake Erie and Ontario around 1998 and in northern Lake Michigan in 2006.

The success of ABJ and Fe is sort of set against a bigger picture that's not too encouraging at the moment.

And since that time, there have been periodic severe outbreaks in the autumn that have killed thousands of common loons, and these outbreaks, they occur annually, but the severity has been kind of all over the place. So, that's one threat right now. And that's a big one.

There may be other on-refuge factors that are causing this decline. And we're in the midst of a project right now that's looking at possible reasons why life on the refuge may be harder than it used to be. Possibly blood parasites or West Nile virus, possibly a lack of productivity in the pools themselves, basically a lack of forage base, less fish than there used to be, that sort of thing.

So, the success of ABJ and Fe is sort of set against a bigger picture that's not too encouraging at the moment.

Saliby: And briefly in this last minute that we have together, what is your organization doing to protect the birds?

I'm sure this research is a part of that, but what other ways are these birds being protected?

McCormick: We try to raise public awareness about loon needs. In particular, they're extremely sensitive when nesting. So, Seney is nice because there's prohibition on watercraft, so they don't have to deal with fishermen and kayakers and such.

But elsewhere across the state, loons have to coexist with people. And oftentimes, there are problems especially when loons are nesting with encroachment that leads to loons flushing from nests or even abandoning nests. So, we try to do a fair amount of public outreach, spreading the message of needing to give loons a buffer when nesting.

We try to do a fair amount of public outreach, spreading the message of needing to give loons a buffer when nesting.

And relatedly there are lots of lakes in Michigan, where there is no or never was breeding habitat. Loons require small islands or hummocks that are buffered from the shoreline to afford protection from mainland predators.

And in the absence of the natural habitat, artificial nesting platforms, which are typically three by three rectangles of PVC pipe that float, that have some sort of nesting material in the middle are really, really good surrogates. So, we're involved in efforts in different parts of the states to increase platform usage on lakes where loons don't have any natural habitat.

Saliby: Damon McCormick is a wildlife biologist with Common Coast Research and Conservation. Thank you for joining me.

McCormick: Thanks for your time.

This conversation has been edited clarity and conciseness.

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