April. The C Pool male has just completed his spring migration, flying north from the Atlantic to Seney National Wildlife Refuge, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. At minimum, it has been a thousand mile trip. He lands on his territory, which is still in the early stages of thawing. He is hungry. He hunts along the retreating margins of ice, corralling small perch and large pike. He consumes the occasional crayfish and the frequent bullhead, whose indigestible barbels he first removes with a dexterity borne of fifteen refuge years. He feeds voraciously.
One week later, his mate materializes on the pool. She has just undertaken an analogous but not identical voyage from southern waters. Although she too is famished, there is a seven month separation to reconcile, and so she must balance her own hunting with the mandates of pair bonding. Heads lowered, she and the C male swim tight circles around one another. On the water's surface they jointly tap an accelerating Morse with their bills, and then synchronously dive with sudden jerks. They weave submerged hieroglyphics. Within several days they have communicated enough aggregate information to each other such that a mutual, if provisional, decision is reached: okay, let's proceed.
In May, courtship commingles with competition. The pair begins to hunt for a nest site - ideally, a small island or hummock that affords quick access to open water and yet protection from high wind and waves. The C male is keen to keep is mate within eyesight at all times, and thus lets her largely dictate their transit throughout the territory. The eagles that periodically appear overhead receive three-note wails of alarm from both birds; loons that materialize in flight are favored with territorial bellows from the male. These are frequently young adults - three to six years in age - in strident search of a home and a partner, and the C male's warning yodels do not always serve as an effective deterrent. Although the trespasses of these intruders are generally brief and nonviolent, each interaction is fraught with the threat of aggression, and the possibility of territorial eviction... circumstances with which the C male is intimately familiar. Throughout this spring, however, he manages to hold his competitors at bay. Having furtively copulated on land during visits to potential nesting areas, they select their site and jointly construct a shallow basin of mud and vegetation near the water's edge. The female lays two oblong, speckled, olive-colored eggs. They are the size of fists, and will require nearly a month of diligent attention.
Nesting is arduous. The duo, who incubate their eggs in alternating shifts, is assailed by blackflies. A pair of nesting trumpeter swans, who are utilizing the same undersized island, periodically attack. The parade of intruding loons continues; if the C male is incubating when an interloper lands, he will typically flush from the nest in order to drive off the challenger, leaving the eggs exposed to both the elements and potential predators. Nonetheless, in mid June, having skirted all perils, two loon chicks emerge. They are dark downy fluffballs of precociousness, immediately capable of swimming but wholly dependent upon their parents for food. Although mom and dad attend to this task with a steady offering of small minnows and shiners, the young chicks are initially more interested in protection than provender: they ride upon their parents’ backs, and brood underneath their wings, and - heeding the directives of sibling rivalry - periodically peck each other with their incipient bills.
As the C Pool young enter their third week, they begin to spend all of their time on the water, although they are careful to stay close to a parent. An exception occurs in the presence of intruders: a soft hoot from mom or dad instructs them to hunker inconspicuously near the shore while the visitors are addressed. In an area such as Seney, with a healthy surplus of unpaired adults, this scenario occurs frequently. One early July morning the C pair leaves their offspring in a small eastern cove in order to deal with a freshly-landed trespasser, a four year-old male who was originally hatched upon neighboring B Pool. Their interaction lasts fifteen minutes, and ultimately necessitates a point yodel from the C male before the intruder takes flight. When the pair returns to the cove, one chick has vanished. The parents release strident wails, and canvass the shoreline reeds, but to no avail… possibly a snapper or a pike, but more likely a gull or an eagle. It is a relatively unusual outcome for a refuge chick, who has an 84% probability of surviving its first summer, and an even unlikelier fate for a progeny of the C male, who has fledged 92% of his prior offspring. The family proceeds as a threesome.
As July closes the social dynamics of the neighborhood grow more complicated. Intrusions swell in size, involving as many as twenty adults at a time, and begin to incorporate many of the refuge’s territorial loons. The C male grows more tolerant of these encroachments, and although not as frequently as his mate occasionally flies off to participate in gatherings on nearby pools. By this time his rapidly developing chick has become mobile enough underwater so as to minimize the threat from eagles and other airborne predators, and has begun to make its first attempts at fishing. These endeavors, of course, do not yield immediate an self-sufficiency, and as August unfolds, and as social gatherings wane, the C pair focuses heavily upon fattening their chick. But this effort, unlike the earlier phases of parenting, shortly turns asymmetric: the female, feeding on larger waterbodies in the area, is evidenced less and less on C Pool, and in early September unceremoniously departs the refuge for the season. The chick is now properly a juvenile, its down fully replaced with feathering, and it begs incessantly from its father, whose own molt is manifest by an emerging graybeard around the base of its formerly black malar. When he seeks temporary reprieve from his offspring’s appetite by leaving the pool, the ten week-old follows behind in short abortive practice flights across lengths of the water.
On a calm morning in mid September ten or so days after his partner’s exodus the C male fills his offspring’s belly with bevy of bullheads, kindly removing their cumbersome barbels beforehand, and then departs as well; the juvenile is left to navigate the challenges of migration without parental guidance. He is a male, and if he fledges successfully and survives his two- to three-year adolescence on the ocean, then it is likely that he will eventually return to the refuge as an unpaired adult, ready to challenge for turf and mate. If he does so, there will be no recognition, much less assistance, between father and son.
The C male’s distant ancestors were seabirds who evolved the capacity to propagate on freshwater lakes, and thus his journey south toward the sea not without its hazards is something of an atavistic undertaking. Like most of his Seney brethren, his ultimate destination is the Atlantic side of the Florida coast, although the absence of a fixed winter territory or partner renders him unbound to any particular area. By Thanksgiving he has surrendered all of his piebald coloring, and in his grays and whites superficially resembles a slightly larger version of the C juvenile. He feeds both singularly and within loose loon congregations, both upon the open water of the Continental Shelf and within protected bays and estuaries of the coastline. For two weeks in February he is bound to the ocean as he molts his full complement of flight feathers; shortly thereafter the first black evidence of new breeding plumage begins to emerge, and heralds the onset of another voyage toward northern Michigan. Having departed his summer home over a half-year earlier, there is a good chance a 97% chance, in fact that he will again find his way to Seney for the arrival of spring.