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Stubborn winter, hot summer and an empty Pacific loon nest

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch

Wednesday, June 12, 2013: Where are the Connors Lake loons? They haven't been as visible this year as in years past. Blame winter. Blame the heat. But know that they're out there; you just have to pick a good time for listening.

The female Pacific loon who's called Connors Lake home for nearly a decade, maybe longer -- and whom Jean Tam keeps close tabs on -- is well settled onto the nesting platform that's home to the Alaska Loon Cam. She's been observed copulating. Eggs come next -- it's just a question of when.

It's been almost exactly a year since newborn baby loons arrived at Connors Lake. Two eggs hatched between June 13-14, 2012, Tam said. The female laid those eggs on May 19 and May 22, 2012.

But this year's been a bit different. Ice stubbornly encased Connors Lake and much of the rest of Alaska until late May, about three weeks later than normal.

Do you enjoy listening to Pacific loons? Try logging on to the Loon Cam after 10 p.m. Loons begin to serenade late in the day at Campbell Lake in South Anchorage. During the heat of the day, they're not quite as vocal.

Thursday, June 6, 2013: How many species of loons make the pilgrimmage to Alaska? 

Five, according to the Alaska Audubon Society.

Other interesting loon facts:

-- Incubation period for Pacific loons is about a month.

-- Pacific loons are birds of the north, populous in northern North America.

-- Pacific loons spend most of the year on the Pacific Ocean, returning to inland lakes in Alaska and across the Arctic only for three months in summer to breed.

-- Arctic Loon is nearly identical, but has a flatter crown and white along the flanks, especially near the rump.

Read much more about Pacific loons at the Cornell Ornithology website, which offers information on the natural aspects of a bird's life cycle.

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Wednesday, June 5, 2013: If history is any guide, eggs should be laid any day now on the manmade island floating in Connors Lake, where loons rule the roost.

Jean Tam and Scott Christy, who have put the island out for loons each year since 2003, keep track of big dates involved with their annual summer project: when the ice goes out on the lake, when the first loons arrive, when eggs are laid, how long incubation takes, when babies hatch and the like.

Based on their data, it's usually about two weeks from the day the loons arrive on the nest and appearance on the loon cam of the first egg.

This year, the loons arrived May 21.

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Saturday, June 1, 2013: Pacific loons make unique calls, at once lornful and melodic, like oboes echoing across open water.

The Cornell University Ornithology Lab distinguishes all the different calls of the Pacific loon: yodels and hoots, croaks and yelps, wails and splash dives.

Listen in on Cornell’s loon call collection and then try to identify what sounds are coming off the lake in Anchorage.

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Friday, May 31, 2013: What inspires Jean Tam and Scott Christy to record the goings-on at a Pacific loon nest?

Curiosity.

"I had a tremendous curiosity about what was happening on the nest since it was very difficult to see anything in detail from shore," Tam said. "I figured it was a great way to share their lives with the rest of the world."

The couple are well-known local conservationists who love the birds of Alaska. They've been recording loons on Connors Lake since long before an off-leash dog park was approved nearby. Loons are constantly facing predators, but Tam says the birds' habitat is more seriously threatened now.

Tam opposes the increasing traffic -- dogs and humans -- and how it wrecks the loon's habitat.

"The loons have learned to tolerate all the urban sounds, from jets overhead to the barking dogs. What concerns me most is the pollution caused by all the dog poop that is washed into the lake," she said.

Tam expects the Pacific loon to lay her first egg around June 4. 

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Wednesday, May 29, 2013: Loons have been on the nest only a week and already it's a summer for the record books on Connors Lake. Jean Tam, lake resident and local Pacific loon lover, has kept records each year that she's also coordinated video of the habits, reproduction and parenting timeline for a banded female that's returned for at least 11 years.

This year, spring arrived late -- snow was on the ground across much of Alaska as mid-May came and went -- and the delay meant Tam's loons had no protected nest on the lake. According to Tam's records, the West Anchorage lake was frozen a full two weeks longer than any other year since 2003, and the ice finally went out this year on May 21.

Until 2013, the previous latest thaw had come in 2008, when Tam says the ice went out on May 7. Almanac records show a sum of nearly 18 hours of sunlight that day.

Take a look at the data (PDF).

Tam says it's usually two weeks between the loon's arrival and  laying of a first egg. But this year may be on a rushed schedule, she said Tuesday. It will be the female loon's ninth clutch under Tam's watch -- the cam was off in 2007 and Tam was away over summer 2009, so records aren't so definitive those years.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013: Anchorage's favorite female loon was a little late arriving this year. Blame the weather.

The ice has finally gone out and birds have returned to waterways across Alaska, mating and preparing for a summer of baby rearing. So too has a manmade island returned to Connors Lake in midtown, moved offshore by a legion of volunteers that are coordinated by Jean Tam.

It's a tradition for Tam and other bird lovers: each May, they prepare the island for one special loon, a female who's returned for more than a decade. Each summer, the female raises a new clutch of chicks on the island, under a protective tent-like structure that has a nest and a surveillance camera, too.

Loon predators like bald eagles cannot see the eggs because of the covered structure. This offers the loons a leg-up on other migratory birds in Alaska at the mercy of weather and bigger animals up the food chain.

The female loon arrived around May 21, a day before Tam and company moved the island out into the lake. Red-necked grebes and a pair of Mew Gulls have been spotted on the lake, too, she said.

All are displaying breeding behavior. The male loons challenge each other for primacy on the lake and "alpha male" status to mate with the female. 

Tam said mating has been "fast and furious" this year, possibly due to the late arrival of summer.

Most years, a clutch of eggs is on the nest by now but it may be another week or two before a full nest, she said Tuesday. 

Each year, Alaska Dispatch hosts the Alaska Loon Cam from the beginning of the season when the female arrives, until mid-summer, when the loons take off along with thousands of other migratory birds summering in 49th state.