Wednesday, July 14, 2010 11:08pm


72 degrees  Calm  Partly Cloudy


Let me first of all answer the question that you are most concerned about.

Our loons seem to be doing well.

A few days ago we were in the lake swimming and both loons came swimming in fairly close to us.  They looked good.

Then today one of them was swimming not too far away and called a number of times.  When I called back to her, she answered.

Today was an absolutely tropical steamy day.  At one point the dewpoint was reported at 86 degrees!!!  And the air temperature was in the low 90's with a heat index of 106 degrees.   For Minnesotans, that is almost unheard of and unbearable.  But at least the loons are able to be in the water to stay cool.

I want to share something with you that happened Monday night.  I was going to wait to tell you until the news had been officially released but it seems to be all over the place today so I guess it is okay to share it with you now.

On Monday night, I had the privilege of being part of a team that surgically implanted satellite transmitters in a couple of loons.

The project was overseen by the United States Geological Service, under the direction of Kevin Kenow, along with the Minnesota DNR.  This was the project that I mentioned to you some weeks ago where we were looking for loons that had had chicks this year.  I want to thank so many of you who sent me information that I could then pass on to the USGS and the MN DNR.  Carrol Henderson, who I have introduced you to before and who is the head of all the non-game programs for the Minnesota DNR, was also with us that night.

They chose 3 lakes for the project....2 lakes on the St John's University campus and one lake near Monticello Minnesota.  Thank you to Dr Carol Jansky at St John's University and Pattie Roggenkamp near Monticello for giving us information about the loons on these lakes.  In addition, the USGS is going to do another 7 lakes in Wisconsin.  I had planned to wait until they had finished their work in Wisconsin and we had more information about that.  But since it was all over the television news tonight here in Minnesota and in a number of newspapers, I wanted you to be the 'first' to know and not the last.

The plan was to surgically implant a satellite transmitter into 3 loons [one from each lake] that night and then to band all of the loons that we captured and also attach a data recorder to their legs.

The satellite transmitter will communicate directly to a satellite thousands of miles above the earth and will report their exact location back to the USGS.  Kevin Kenow and the USGS have done this several times before.  In 1998 they tracked some loons from Minnesota and Wisconsin and then in 2003 to 2006 they tracked a number of loons from New England.  So the idea is not new but the technology has improved greatly.

It is still hard to fully comprehend the technology that allows us to do something like this.  Now with the Gulf oil spill [or as I like to call it, the Gusher in the Gulf...oil 'spill' is much to benign a term for the amount of oil that has been released], it is even more important that we understand better where loons migrate and what happens to them when they get down on the Gulf.  I may say more about that in a minute.

The data recorder that was attached to the leg along with the colored bands would record the loon's location, the temperature and their altitude or depth.  All of this would be recorded within the device which would then have to be retrieved at some point to download the data.

All of this information will help to fill in so many blank spots in our understanding of loon migration and activites on their wintering territories.  There is a real lack of information about loons during their time on the ocean during the winter.  So hopefully this can add some new information and help us understand them better.  This now becomes extremely important with the Gusher in the Gulf and with the potential tragic consequences of that oil.

When the project was first proposed, right away we thought of 'our' loons.  The loons that so many thousands upon thousands of people have watched and fallen in love with.  The most famous loons in the world.  And also the most documented and observed loons.  The loons that each of you have made so famous.

But one of the requirements for this project was that they have chicks from this year.  Partially that is to aid in being able to capture them.  And partially to be able to track the chicks.  And so because our loons did not have chicks this year, of all years, they were ruled out from being in the study.  We were all disappointed.

On Monday night, a group of us gathered at St John's University.  While we waited for the arrival of the USGS personnel from Wisconsin and the veterinary surgeon from Florida, a number of us walked out along one of the beautiful trails through the woods along the lakeshore to see if we could find the loons.  Without too much problem, we found the loons and the chicks swimming on the other side of the north end of the lake....the opposite end of the lake from where they had nested.

Shortly after we returned to the science labs, the USGS crew pulled up with their canoe and with their trailer where the surgery would be done.  The trailer was a 'recycled' FEMA trailer.  I am not sure where it had been used, but the thought crossed my mind that it would be so appropriate if it had been used in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and now would be used for loons that would be heading back down to that same area.  I meant to ask but forgot to when everything started happening.

We all gathered for a briefing to go over the plan of action for the evening before heading out.

The plan was that we would capture 2 loons on each lake and capture the chicks as well.  That would make a total of 4 adult loons and 4 chicks on these first two lakes and then another two adult loons and one chick on the third lake for a total of 6 adult loons and 5 chicks.  Then they would surgically implant the satellite transmitters in the male loons.  All of the loons would be fitted with colored leg bands for visual identification in the future and also fitted with data recorders recorders on their legs.

The same thing would then be repeated on the third lake some 30 or 40 miles away.

The way one captures a loon for this project is the same way one captures a loon for 'simple' banding.

You wait until it is dark.  The darker the better.  You do not want the loon to be able to see you.

You go out onto the lake after dark and try to find the loons.  One of the reasons that you want them to have chicks is that they will likely be swimming together and more importantly, the parents are very protective of the chicks.  The chicks need to be several weeks old in order to be fitted with any kind of bands or data recorders.  Otherwise they are too small.

When you locate the area where the loons are, you play a distress call...which as all of you know is either a tremolo or a yodel call.  This says to the adults that there is another loon on the lake that is intruding into their territory and is also a possible danger to their chicks.  So the adults come to investigate who this intruder is.  Also, since they have chicks, they also tend to stay on the surface of the water more.

When the loon comes close to the boat to investigate the intruder, you shine a bright light in his eyes so that he cannot see either the boat or see you.  This allows you to use a very large fishing net to scoop the loon out of the water.  The loon is put into a crate for transportation back to shore and then back to the 'base camp' for the surgery and/or the banding.

So about 10:30pm it was decided that is was probably dark enough to head out to the lake.

But as with most things in life, there are the plans that are made and then there is the reality of what actually happens.

So tomorrow I will try to tell you some of the rest of the story.