Wednesday, May 12, 2010 5:21am CDT

39 degrees  Cloudy   Wind  NE 9mph
As the first light of the morning begins to reveal itself, the birds are in full song and our loon sits quietly with its beak tucked beneath its wing.  Resting but ever alert.
Today promises to be a fairly quiet day.  There is more rain in the forecast but probably not until later today.  It will remain unseasonably cold today, as well as the next couple days, with highs today only in the 40s.  It is not predicted get back to normal until this weekend.
This weekend is the 'fishing opener'.  Anyone who has lived or been in Minnesota knows that fishing opener is a big deal when thousands upon thousands of people head to the lake for the first time.  It can be a busy time for our loons.

Since there have been a number of questions about the nesting platform itself and how to do one, this might be a good time to talk about that.

First of all, there are several questions you should answer before you consider doing a nesting platform.

-Are there normally loons present on the lake where you are considering putting a nest?

- Have they have nested on this lake in the last three years?

-Have you seen any newly hatched chicks in the last three years?

If the loons on your lake have nested in the past three years and have had chicks, it is probably better to let them nest naturally.  You may do more harm than good by putting an artificial nest out on the lake.

If you have had loons on the lake and they have nested but never had any chicks, your lake may be a candidate for an artificial loon nesting platform.  But be sure you check with your state Department of Natural Resources or whatever name it goes by.  Work closely with them for advice and also any permission which may be necessary.  Your local sheriff may also require a permit for you to put a loon nest like this on public waters.  Each state has different requirements.

On the lake where I am, we have had loons for many years.  But until I put the artificial nest out, it had been probably 30 years since anyone had seen chicks.  The lake shoreline is very built up and it is a lake that has a lot of recreational usage.  I think all of that added together meant that the loons were not able to nest successfully.

Once you have determined that your lake is a candidate for an artificial nest and you have obtained any permissions necessary , then it is on to building the nesting platform.

I do not have any blueprints.  I should probably at some point consider developing some.  But when I started I was doing everything pretty much by trial and error.  Since then we have seen some of what is successful and this is what I will try and describe to you.

You can google “floating loon nest” and a number of resources will come up for you.  Some of them utilize logs for the framework of the nest.  These are nice but just be aware that they are heavy and ultimately they will become waterlogged.

The nest that I have has a frame made out of PVC pipe.  It is roughly 5 feet by 5 feet and made out of normal 4 inch PVC drain pipe.  In the center of the 5x5 square, I place construction foam sheets(the pink stuff) about 4 to 5 inches thick.  It is vital that you very carefully seal all of the joints on the PVC pipe so that it is waterproof.  It provides a lot of the floatation for the nest.

The foam in the center of the frame also provides a great deal of floatation.  This is necessary since the nesting material that you will place on top of it will be very heavy when it is wet.

Around this frame and the foam, I wrap plastic ‘snow fence’ that is available at almost any hardware store.  This hold the foam in place and helps keep everything together.  I wrap it completely around the nest in both directions.  I originally used chicken wire.  Do not use chicken wire.  It will barely make it through one season before it starts rusting through.  Then for a couple years I used a much heavier galvanized steel fencing.  But even this started to rust through after a couple years.  The plastic snow fence has now been in place 3 or 4 years and it still looks almost like new.

Over this I wrap landscape fabric.  The main purpose of this is to eliminate any cracks and crevices and holes where a young chick might become trapped.  The last thing you want and nothing would be sadder than to successfully have a loon chick hatch only to lose it because it became trapped in the nesting platform itself.  I also wrap the landscape fabric around the whole platform in both directions, just like with the plastic snow fence.

Pay the extra money to get the heavier construction grade landscape fabric.  The cheap stuff will barely last one season where the heavier material will last at least 2 or 3 seasons.  I am on the second season with this one and it still looks almost new.

By now you should have a nicely finished platform.

Now is the time to place nesting material on the platform.

This is an art more than a science.  Some people have said they have had loons successfully nest without placing any material on the platform.  But why take a chance?  Loons are very opportunistic nest builders and will use whatever materials are close at hand.  So my philosophy is why not provide them with everything they need?

That way they are moving into a ‘furnished home’.  All they have to do is to rearrange the furniture to their liking!

That may be part of the reason why this nest has been successful every year for so many years in a row whereas only about half of the nesting platforms that are put out are ever used.

I use a combination of cattails and other weeds and material that has washed up on shore.  As I rake weeds during the summer, I will save some of them for use the next spring.  I figured that whatever washed up on shore is what loons would normally use so if it is good enough for them, it is good enough for me to put on the nesting platform.

I place this material over the whole area of the nesting platform to a depth or 5 or 6 inches.  From that point on, I leave it up to the loons to decide how they want to rearrange it.

One thing that you will have to deal with is the tendency for wind and waves to wash all of the material off the nest.  It is a real problem and one that I have gotten better at but I am not sure I have really solved it to the point where I am fully satisfied.  I will always try to keep improving it.

But here are a couple things that I do.  I build the base of the material out of cattails.  It is quite the building project as I criss cross and almost interweave the cattails so that they hold each other in place.  Then on top of this goes the rest of the weedy material.  It is almost an engineering project!

To help hold that in place, I plant growing plants at key points on the nest.  I place plants at the corners of the material, especially on the windward side of the platform.  As the plants grow their roots into the nesting material, it helps to stabilize it and hold it in place.  Be sure you leave clear areas for the loons to get on and off the nest easily.

I am still experimenting with what plants do best.

But what I have used the last couple years are a combination of irises and daylilies.  They seem to be doing well and get enough water from the waves hitting the nest to keep them going.  This year I also used some Creeping Charlie….maybe there is actually a good use for it!!!

If you gather weeds that have washed up on your shore, there will be some plants that start to grow naturally on the nest as the season goes along.

I am not sure which plants the muskrat is so attracted to but I will careful examine those areas after the loons are gone and try not to give him a salad bar next year!

Now you are ready to float your nest.  But you will have to decide how you are going to anchor it.  But before we get to that, let me mention one other thing.  Be sure you float the platform and let it sit in the water for a few days just to make sure there is no leakage in the PVC frame.  I would recommend you do this BEFORE you place the foam and snow fence and landscape fabric.

When I first built mine, it floated wonderfully…for the FIRST day!  By the second day it seemed to be riding lower in the water.  And on the third day it was tipped up on its side as the PVC pipe was filling with water.   This step is crucial for you.

I use two anchors on the nest….partly as a failsafe method to keep it from  getting loose and just floating away.  But just as importantly is to keep it from just spinning around and around in the wind if you had only one anchor.  I use one anchor point that is screwed into the bottom of the lake (after the loons leave, it is used to anchor a huge water trampoline for the ‘loony’ kids!).  The other anchor is simply a cement block attached by a rope.

Leave enough slack in both of the ropes so that the platform can ride up and down on the waves.  If you tie it too short and too tightly, the waves will wash over the nest rather than the nest riding over the waves.

The ability of the nest to ride over the waves rather than be overwhelmed by them is one of the strongest advantages of this type of an artificial nest.

So good luck with your artificial nest.   May you have as much success as we have had with this nest!!