Saturday, May 9, 2009 5:56am CDT


37 degrees     A few high clouds     Wind  NW 13mph


A few minutes before the sun peeks over the trees surrounding the lake finds our loon hunkered down on the nest, faithfully having protected the eggs from the chill overnight air.

The floating nest gently bounces on what Minnesotans would call "walleye chop" on a day like today.

For you see "a day like today" is almost a state holiday.  In Minnesota, it is what is called "The Fishing Opener".  Or "Opening Day".  It is a day when literally hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans and people from all over head to the lakes to go fishing.  At midnight last night, it became legal to take walleye and northern pike and some of the other gamefish for which Minnesota is so well known. 

In fact, the state's governor and his wife were planning to be out fishing at 3:30am this morning!  And they are joined by so many thousands of others for this annual rite of spring.

For the loons, it means increased boat traffic on the lake today.  Really the first day of spring that boats will be out in numbers.  So we will see what the day will bring for our loons.  Fortunately, many of the fishermen head farther north on the opener.  But even for our loons, they will see more boats than what they had seen so far this spring.

Increased numbers of boats brings two dangers for the loons.  One is curiosity or obliviousness.  The other is wakes.

Since almost everyone in Minnesota loves loons, if boaters spot the loon on the nest the natural reaction is to want to see the loon closer.  And by getting too close, they can scare the loon off the nest.  If they stay in the area, the loon may refuse to get back up on the nest and the cool morning air may chill the eggs too much for them to survive.  Or the fishermen may be totally oblivious to the loon on the nest and approach too close with exactly the same results.

The second danger is large wakes from passing boats.  If the wake is very large, it can literally wash up and over the nest possibly destroying it and washing the eggs out of the nest.  However, the loon will try to stay on the nest and prevent that from happening.  But it is one of the many dangers our loons face.

Since it is "The Opener", let's talk about the loon's diet.

Loons feed almost exclusively on fish.  They may supplement their diet with a few aquatic insects but by far the bulk of their diet is small fish.

When fishing is not good, there are a few fishermen through the years that have blamed loons.  They have blamed them for eating too many fish.

However, studies have been done which largely disprove that hypothesis.  That loons have a deleterious effect on fish populations.

Now that is not to say that loons do not eat a lot of fish!  They do.  However, they tend to eat minnows and smaller fish when there is an overabundance of a certain species.  The case could be made that loons help to cull species that are overabundant and thereby make for a healthier population.

But for some fishermen, the controversy will continue.

An adult loon will eat up to two pounds of fish a day!  Some have calculated that during the course of a season, a pair of loons with two chicks will eat up to a half ton to a ton of fish.  That is a lot of fish.  While most of the fish will be very small, loons have been known to catch and swallow fish that weigh over half a pound.  That would be a largemouth bass that is almost a foot long!  There have been rare instances documented where a loon has tried to swallow a fish that is too large and has actually choked to death.  Fortunately that is VERY rare.

But a loon is made to eat fish.  One of the requirements for any lake to have a pair of nesting loons is that it have an abundance of fish to eat and that the water is very clear so that they can see to catch their prey.  In that way, loons are one of the "indicator species".  If the water in a lake gets too polluted and murky, the loons cannot see to fish and will simply move on to other lakes.  Fortunately for us, the lake that our loons are on has very good water clarity.  And an abundance of small fish.

Today is forecast to be cooler than average with highs only in the 50's.  But our loons are doing well.  And with not too many boats on the lake, hopefully today will be a good and an uneventful day for them as they struggle to hatch two new loon chicks.


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