Right leg red over green, left leg silver... the ABJ, at right, is twenty. As a breeding common loon, he has spent the entirety of his procreative life at Seney National Wildlife Refuge (1), in the eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The refuge’s managed pools, which were carved out of the Great Manistique Swamp during the height of the New Deal, afford loons both abundant habitat and ample solitude, and within this accommodating environment the ABJ has flourished. Since acquiring his E Pool territory in 1997, he has produced, with his mate of eleven breeding seasons, an average of 1.1 chicks per summer by loon standards, an exceptional level of sustained productivity. After several years spent reaching maturity on the ocean, two of these offspring have returned to Seney as adult males and have subsequently acquired their own refuge territories. In 2007, one hatched and fledged two chicks of his own, and in doing so rendered the ABJ a first-time grandfather.
One hundred and seventy miles to the northwest of Seney’s man-made impoundments, the McCargoe Cove female resides under circumstances that better conform to the archetype of traditional loon habitat. Her home is a tapering fjord of rock and conifer cut into the north shore of Isle Royale National Park (2), an island of federally-designated wilderness within Lake Superior that harbors over 100 breeding loon pairs, including 40 like the McCargoe female and her mate who nest upon the shores of Superior itself. Several years ago, during an atlasing project by Common Coast, a problem emerged: the traditional McCargoe nest site, located on a small hummock near the base of the cove, was intersected by one of the park’s more popular portage routes. Canoeists heading to or arriving from Chickenbone Lake, funneled into the mouth of Chickenbone Creek, were forced to pass within close proximity of the nest. While the McCargoe pair was clearly selecting and constructing their site in advance of this heavy recreational traffic, during the actual month-long incubation of eggs they were suffering the chronic encroachment of inadvertently disruptive paddlers.
South of Isle Royale, another portion of Michigan wilderness the Sylvania is situated along state’s border with northern Wisconsin, and within the western Upper Peninsula’s expansive Ottawa National Forest. Adjacent to the Sylvania are two small, undeveloped lakes Hilltop and Trail (3) which collectively house one loon pair, and which in their seclusion have served for many decades as a functional extension of the wilderness itself. From 1995-2004 the Hilltop female and her partner averaged 0.71 fledged chicks per year inferior to the ABJ’s success, but still representative of healthy productivity. In 2005, however, a 120-acre parcel of land, including the only shoreline of either lake not owned by the National Forest, was being subdivided in advance of extensive residential development. The plan carried with it the promise of two dramatically transformed lakes, and the threat of an acutely compromised loon habitat.
During the same season, a loon chick was hatched on Little Round Lake in the central Upper Peninsula's Hiawatha National Forest (4). Similar to Hilltop and Trail, Little Round is small in size (28 acres), partially ringed in bog shoreline, and marked by notably acidic water. Throughout the summer of 2005, the juvenile loon fed copiously on a diet of yellow perch and bluegill, and by ten weeks of age - fully developed, and capable of flight - it weighed almost as much as its mother. Attending this voracious appetite and rapid growth, however, was the accumulation of an extremely high level of the metal mercury (Hg). Although the juvenile successfully fledged from the lake in late September, the potentially toxic effects of its excessive Hg burden foretold an uncertain winter.
The work of Common Coast is embodied by our relationship to these four loons and the circumstances that have attended them. In the case of Isle Royale's McCargoe Cove, we worked with park management to modify the portage location heading into Chickenbone Lake; the result was a slightly longer walk for paddlers, but a significantly improved nesting environment for the McCargoe pair. For Hilltop and Trail Lake, we assembled a small consortium of buyers whose primary focus was centered upon the preservation of the property; having purchased the parcel last year, their impending conservation easement will ensure that the two lakes remain undeveloped, and that the Hilltop pair continues to nest in peace. Not all loons, of course, come tethered to dilemmas: Seney's ABJ is one of hundreds of color-marked adults and juveniles who have been intensively monitored in the Upper Peninsula for over two decades, and who have collectively illuminated many facets of the species' population dynamics, breeding biology, and natural history. Conversely, not all loons who present themselves problematically offer immediate solutions: mercury contamination is a widespread environmental concern, and while Common Coast is exploring its intersection with loons in a variety of ways, none of this work alters the truth that the Little Round juvenile migrated from its birthplace in the autumn of 2005 with a worryingly elevated level of Hg in its system - the highest, in fact, ever recorded in the Great Lakes.
Our goals as a nonprofit, then, straddle both broad and narrow outlooks, both regional considerations and local concerns. To this end, we welcome questions, suggestions, assistance and support from organizations and agencies that are interested, for example, in what loons can tell us about the aquatic health of Michigan's waterbodies, and from individuals and associations that are focused upon the protection of a single pair on a specific lake. We regard this figurative coast - the expanse of interconnected issues and perspectives by which we define loons, and by which they define us - as a true commons... a small part of the shared world that merits our attention and our effort.