Observing Common Loons
By Kate Crowley
The day could not have been more perfect for a morning pontoon boat ride on Bay Lake, just northwest of Mille Lacs. This trip is one we have repeated every June for nearly a dozen years. We take a group of people with us to Ruttger’s Resort where we rent two pontoon boats and set off in search of loons. Normally we go in the afternoon, but this year we decided to try the morning and we will stick with that change because we found fewer boats and noise on the lake at that time.
Our passengers come from around the country and they stay at the Audubon Center as part of a Road Scholar’s (formerly known as Elderhostel) program. One of the reasons they choose to participate in this program is their desire to see our State Bird. We Minnesotans, are proud of this big, black and white waterfowl and even if we aren’t fortunate enough to live on a lake where loons are found, we relish the knowledge that they come back to our state every spring. I suspect that most of the readers of this paper live near to a lake that has loons on it, and at least hear the birds once or twice during the summer when they fly over and give their tremolo call.
People travel far to see the Common (what a misnomer) loon, because they only nest in the far northern states that have lakes with good supplies of fish and marshy bays where they can build their low nests. Their range has changed quite a bit over the last century. They once nested as far south as Iowa and Illinois, but changes in land practices related to agriculture eliminated the types and quality of lakes they needed.
People living in states along the Gulf of Mexico might actually see the loons during the winter months, but they would have to be skilled to recognize them as such, since they molt their feathers at the end of every summer before leaving and they become a drab, dull brownish color. The young from each summer are also this same nondescript color and they will stay this way for three years, while they hang out in the Gulf waters, waiting to reach adulthood.
One of the great mysteries of migration is found in this species. Every August, after the loon chicks are properly weaned and fishing on their own, the parents leave them behind and join other adults on other lakes where they prepare for their trip south. The young cannot yet fly when this happens, so they can’t follow the parents. Instead they congregate with other young loons and exercise their wing muscles by running across the lake, flapping as they go. Eventually, on one of these practice runs they will become airborne, but by this time the adults are long gone and the parentless loons must navigate on their own down to the Gulf. Someday we may better understand the genetic component that allows them to accomplish this amazing journey without any other birds guiding them.
We only saw 13 adult loons on our morning boat ride. This is fewer than years past and we suspect the reason may be related to our late spring. The loons were already in the region while there was still ice on many of the lakes and so they were late in setting up their territories, mating and nesting. It is our belief that many of the loons were sitting on eggs. Usually we see a number of pairs swimming together by this time in June and that just wasn’t the case this year. They should still have enough time to raise the young and leave before the ice returns.
The more ominous reason for fewer loons is one that could not be proved, but one we cannot help but think about. Remember that the loons spend more months in the Gulf than here in Minnesota and the young birds are down there continuously for three years. Three years ago the BP oil spill contaminated vast areas of the Gulf. We will never know the full extent of sea birds and other marine life that were killed outright by the oil and the subsequent dispersants, but we know the loss was huge. Based on satellite data, gathered by researchers who attached radio transmitters to some loons while here in Minnesota, it appears that most of the loons who spend summer in our state, spend the winter in the ocean off the coast of Florida, so they would supposedly be less likely to have been exposed to the BP disaster. Loons from Canada seem to settle in the affected area of the Gulf.
While we cannot have a direct impact on the lives of loons while they are so far away, we can do things right here in Minnesota during the summer time to help assure their health and reproductive success. The two most important ways are related to fishing tackle and boating behavior.
If you like to fish on our lakes, please switch from using lead sinkers and jigs, to non-lead. Just ONE lead sinker or jig if ingested can kill a loon. Never cast or fish near loon nests or where they are swimming. More than one loon has been become entangled in fishing line and this can mean a slow death of starvation.
When boating, always be on the lookout for loons swimming on the surface. On some busy lakes they are becoming more comfortable around people and their boats, but it is still up to us to watch out for them, especially when they have chicks with them. If you are close to a loon and it rises up on its tail end and does a splashing kind of display you are too close. This behavior means they are threatened or distressed. We have often found that when we see the birds, we can just put our motor in neutral and drift quietly and it is not unusual for them to pop up quite close to the boat. One other danger from speeding boats or jet skis is the wake that is created. Since their nests are so close to the water, a large wave can easily wash the eggs out of the nest.
Here in Minnesota, we celebrate summer (when it finally arrives) and loons are ideal symbols of our summer abundance and beauty.