Tuesday June 15, 2010 5:13am CDT

59 degrees   Light drizzle   Wind SE 3mph
Two loud wails from the nest pierce the haze over the lake in the early morning light.  A drizzle falls on our loon as she sits on the nest, just like she has for so many mornings before.  Except there is one big difference this morning.
There is no egg.
But so far it doesn't seem to matter.  It is almost as if the habit is so deeply ingrained by now, that she continues so sit.
Even after being off the nest briefly, she once again got back on the nest and tried to roll the egg that wasn't there.....the 'ghost egg'....before she once again settled back down on it.  Complete with the moving of the feet and the wiggle of the tail to get it just right.
It is as if she knows that something is not right, but that she is just not sure of exactly what it is.
Last night as I began walking out to the nest to retrieve the egg, the muskrat swam across a few feet in front of me.  I could barely see his wake in the reflection of what little light there was in the sky.  I had been worried about whether one of the loons would attack me, but for now I was more worried about the muskrat in the water with me.
Fortunately,  he kept swimming and I kept walking. 
Many of you were watching as the loon silently slid off the nest.
In fact, she left so silently I did not even hear her leave even though I was only feet away.  I was surprised that the nest was empty when I got there because I had not even heard her go into the water.  But then I saw her silhouetted against the same reflection of the sky that had let me see the muskrat. 
She was some distance from the nest already, silent.
I took the egg and hurriedly left the nest feeling it as I walked.  Just to make sure that there were no cracks, no holes, no sound, no movement of a chick trying to get out.  There was none.
In fact, as I mentioned last night, there is the faint but distinct odor of a rotten egg.
There was no doubt that this egg was not going to hatch.
Fortunately it had been the right decision to take it and to free the loons from the nest.  X-rays may help to determine if it started to develop and then stopped.  Or if it is possible that it was not fertile from the beginning or never started developing.
But all of that was forgotten last night when a whole chorus of wails and tremolos and yodels started.  A full 5 to 10 minutes AFTER I had left the nest.
My heart sank when those calls started.  I thought to myself, "Oh please NO!  We do not need this!"
And they continued on and on and on.
But then it quickly became apparent as well that they could not be in response to me taking the egg.  It was challenge calls from our pair of loons to another pair of loons that was about a quarter of the way around the lake.  It could not have been from taking the egg because they did not even know that the egg was gone.  At most it was that their heightened sense of alert also made them alert to the presence of the other pair of loons and their call.
But for those first few heart-stopping moments, the calls tore at my heart!
Now as she sits on an empty nest, one wonders how long she will stay there.  She has been off the nest already once this morning and returned.  And when she returned she went through her normal 'egg turning behavior and her wiggle to settle down on the nest.  So much that is ingrained.  So much that seems to be habit.
I would expect in the daylight, that she will eventually see and understand that there is really no egg there.  Something that she probably had trouble comprehending in the dark last night when she turned and moved numerous times before finally settling down to sleep for several hours.  And I would expect that as the realization that there is no longer an egg on the nest dawns on her, she will gradually leave the nest for longer and longer periods of time.  But this is new territory.  I am not sure if any one has ever seen before exactly what a loon does under these circumstances.  When a "predator" has taken the final egg and there is nothing left on the nest.
So we will watch and learn together.
She spent a restful peaceful night on the nest with no apparent distress.
And for now, she sits on the nest surveying her kingdom in the haze and the morning rain like she has for so many mornings before.
One would never guess that this morning was different than any other morning.  But it is.
Once again a wail pierces the early morning air.
There is no answer from the mate.
What will happen when he returns and also finds that there is no longer an egg on the nest to carefully protect and incubate?
We can only wait.  And watch.  And learn.