It is easy to anthropomorphize animal behaviour, to see the selfless act in what is really just the biological imperitive, the need to pass on one's genes. Or the vicious act, depending on the behaviour and our own values and perceptions. Often these behaviours are hard wired in, and just as often we don't know the "thinking" behind it. But anthropomorphism can be hard to avoid, especially if it is something tugging on our heart strings.
The first nesting attempt of Red-throated Loons that I saw this year ended shortly after it began. Frequently a pair of loons will nest on some small islands in the middle of the river that exits Marcil Lake. Calling them islands is being very generous, they are really a serious of small mounds of earth and vegetation, probably about 16 square feet in area. Islands offer some protection from predators to ground nesting birds, and nesting on them is a strategy often employed by loons, especially if the vegetation on them will include taller grasses to help hide the nest.
The first nest they attempted was destroyed by rising water in the river, a day or two after they started building it. I doubt if an egg had even been laid, but if it had it was gone. A couple of days later the water receded again, but not before many nests we'd found on our hikes in the area had been destroyed. Lapland Longspurs, Baird's Sandpipers and Snow Bunting nests that had been in low lying areas near the streams and ponds were submerged. Such are the risks of nesting so close to the buffet a wetland provides.
But quick drop in water levels allowed this loon pair to build again in the same small series of island. And they quickly did just that and when I next saw the nest, the female was sitting on a single egg. Usually they lay two, so it was either the first, or one had been lost in the original attempt. The flooding seemed but a momentarily blip in the breeding season for this pair. That was Thursday.
We returned last night, having been out on the land all weekend. The river had again risen, and this time it had come back with a vengence. The nest (and egg) were completely underwater. The female (or I assume it was the female) was sitting over the nest's location. She didn't leave it, but was plucking plant material from underwater and putting it under herself, where I assume the egg sat. She continued do this until sometime after we left, the embryo would have been long dead, drowned, or more accurately suffocated with no air able to get through the shell.
As I watched her there, not giving up, I couldn't help but have a heavy heart. This is nature, stuff like this happens, and the rising water had destroyed a lot of nests (it continues to rise tonight, almost as high as I've ever seen it), but this got to me. I couldn't help but think of the news photos of a wailing mother rocking her dead child as if it would spring to life if only she could comfort it enough. I know better to transfer those attributes to the bird, that this was likely the only response she could make, if the egg is too low, build up the nest. But knowing doesn't always trump what our minds have learned to do, project ourselves on the world around us.
Tonight they've moved on, there are three pairs of Red-throated Loons there. None seem to be building, and it would likely not be successful a this stage if they did start. I don't know if they can re-brood after a nest failure. I guess that will play out in the coming days. The Pacific Loons should start their nesting in the next few days, if the last two years were any example. Hopefully the water will drop before then, and they can be successful for two years in a row.