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Loon Cam: Banded bird flies nest and Audubon project goes dark, for now

Eric Christopher Adams
File photo from 2012 Alaska Loon Cam coverage of first chick hatching on Connors Lake in West Anchorage, Alaska Jean Tam photo

Over the last 10 years, Alaskans have become more familiar with Pacific Loons, North America's most abundant loon species, which migrates each summer from its ocean habitat to Alaska where the birds reproduce. It's an education that comes from a local activist who prefers bird watching to dog walking.

Jean Tam of West Anchorage is a longtime Audubon Society volunteer who for the last decade has also been "executive producer" of real Alaska reality TV, Anchorage's very own duck-billed "Truman Show" brought live to the world from an artificial nesting platform on a hidden lake just east of the airport where Spenard winds into Jewel Lake.

Tam's Connors Lake Loon Cam has grown in scope and reach over the years. What began as a little rickshaw with tape-recorded video, back in the early 2000s (long before the dog park arrived, Tam notes), has evolved into an annual rite of summer. Her female loon -- banded with an identification bracelet -- has returned consistently since 2003 to the man-made Connors Lake island.

Like clockwork, the female has come back each year. Ice melts, nesting platform goes out, loons show up and cameras roll. But this year something has changed. For the first time since the project began, the female loon and her mate appear to have flown the nest. No eggs have yet been laid for Tam and other loon cam lovers to watch over.

A quick reference of record-keeping on the loon cam project reveals that baby chicks have been hatched on the platform by summer solstice every year since 2003, with exceptions being the years 2007 and 2009, when Tam didn't observe the nest.

"I don't know what's happened," Tam said this week, as record heat baked Southcentral Alaska. "The late winter, the hot summer, no swallows, pollution in the water, children putting a remote-controlled boat on the lake near the platform … any of these disturbances," could have possibly led the loons to abandon the nesting platform.

Even old age could be culprit, Tam said. No one knows for sure how old the banded female loon is. Pacific loons can live to be up to 20 years old.

Tam's female has lain at least 17 eggs, possibly more, since 2003. In that time, ornithologists from Calgary, Canada to Cornell University have tuned in and helped turn Tam's passion into something of an institution. Out Tam's back door, on the lake, male loons battle annually to breed the female, she lays a brood of eggs, and they live or die according to the whims of nature. In Alaska, eagles are the most common predator for Pacific loon chicks. Over the years Tam's island has given the newborns shelter to grow, on candid camera. And with the rise of digital video came opportunities for others Outside to observe the loons in their natural summer habitat, each summer. 

PHOTOS: LOON CAM PLATFORM SAILS ON CONNORS LAKE | LOON CAM BLOGS (2013) (2012)

Jeff Fair, an expert on loons who works with the National Park Service and who inspired Tam to build her nesting platform, does not think the nest was abandoned this year. "The pair simply did not nest on the raft (their traditional site)," he said via email Thursday.

"Loons are likely to skip a year of nesting about one out of five years. A change in mates often causes a year 'off' or a change in nest sites," Fair said, adding that common loons, a close relative of the Pacific loon, switch nests about 20 percent of the time:

(Tam's) close observations of the pair on Connors nesting so regularly (annually) and successfully is unique for Pacific loons. A year 'off' now and then is not a failure, but part of the natural cycles.  A different nesting site may suggest a different mate this year, or disturbance at the traditional site as site selection by the pair was underway. … Any sort of disturbance at the nest site might drive the loons to another site.  Then again, they might just take a year off now and then.  

Common loon pairs are known to wait until a disturbance at the traditional site disappears and then use that site, so I'm wondering whether this Pacific loon pair nested elsewhere.

Loon Cam programming cut short this season

Of the 17 eggs she's laid, 16 hatched on camera and a few birds even disappeared. After weeks waiting and hoping that the loons might reclaim the nest, the cam was going dark Thursday night, said a forlorn Tam.

The female and a male loon are still on Connors Lake; they've just abandoned Tam's nesting platform. Tam hoped they'd come back to the nest. She also hopes this year proves to be an anomaly, and that the female returns to regularly-scheduled programming next summer.

If the birds return to the nest later this summer, perhaps the red light will flash back to life on the loon cam's surveillance camera. If the birds don't return, the web, thankfully, gives nature lovers myriad animal cams to watch -- from the puppy cam at Denali National Park to the polar bear cam at Alaska Zoo. And of course other loon cams, where the yodeling and lake barking continues unabated, beyond the shores of Connors Lake.

"It's disappointing, but I'm so thankful, thankful for the years I've had watching her (the female loon)," Tam said. "Years and years."

But there's hope.

"One year off only means these loons are in synch with their natural cycles," Fair said. "(The Connors Lake Loon Cam) is a unique and wonderful point of view into Pacific loon reproduction … and may play a major role in loon behavioral and reproductive research."

Contact Eric Christopher Adams at eric(at)alaskadispatch.com