Saturday, July 17, 2010 5:36pm CDT

[We have had storms and tornadoes tonight.  I have a little bit of damage but nothing serious.  I had posted this before the second set of storms hit here but for some reason it didn't post.  Fortunately I had saved it!]


74 degrees  Cloudy & Humid  Storms in General Area with Some Tornadoes


Earlier this afternoon I saw a loon swimming by itself not too far out from where the nest had been anchored earlier this spring.  I am not sure if it was one of our loons but I assume it was.  It seemed to be doing well and was relaxing and preening and doing some fishing.  Fortunately the storms that are passing through the area have been bypassing us and it is very quiet here with just a little bit of rain.  But other areas have been getting heavy rain, hail that has been softball or grapefruit size!!

One of those storms passed close to the area where the loons that we banded are located but I have no reports at this time that they were hit with any of the really bad weather.

I have gotten word that all of the loons that we worked with on Monday night are doing well....except for one.  One of the chicks  has not been seen for a couple days.  There is some concern that something may have happened to it.  There is an eagle nest very close to where the loons have been spending much of their time and eagles do fish on the lake.  The concern is that an eagle may have taken that chick but it is all speculation at this point.  There is no definitive word that we have lost one of those two chicks.  

The missing chick is one of the pair of chicks that was NOT banded that night.  So now we can once again only wait and hope for word of it being sighted.

When we left off in the story, the loon was laying on a multiple layers of white towels on the improvised 'operating table'.  The doctor was just ready to make the first incision to implant the satellite transmitter that could track in real time exactly where the loon was located.

A sterile field had been prepared on both the upper and lower part of the loon.  The first incision was made on the upper side.  This would be where the satellite antenna would come out of the loon.

I have had the privilege to watch several extensive surgeries in my life before.  So I was not fully prepared for the emotions that I was feeling as the first incision was made on this beautiful loon.  I knew this whole project was a very good thing to do and so much would be learned from this research that would be helpful to all loons.  But knowing that in my head did not help some of the emotions that I was feeling in my heart.  I looked out the window and saw one of the college students pressed up against the trailer....she had tears in her eyes.  I fully knew what she was feeling.

I knew the loon was in phenomenally good hands with the veterinary surgeon.  He was a veterinarian from the University of Florida.  He has a great deal of experience and expertise from around the world.  But as he said, this was the first time he had done this type of surgery on a loon.

He proceeded very carefully and skillfully.

The first thing was to open a channel for the whip antenna for the satellite to come up through the loon's body and allow the antenna to 'stand up and away' from the loon's body.

It was difficult to make that channel through the skin and the muscle.  But soon that part was done.

Now it was time for the more serious part of the operation.  The larger incision on the bottom of the bird where the satellite transmitter package itself would go.

The loon was turned over to expose the area near the back of the leg.  And once again the first incision was made.  Once again the difficulty in getting through skin and muscle.  Plus the added challenge of getting through a mass of blood vessels without causing undue damage and bleeding.

You will remember that we once talked about how loons sit on their eggs and brood them.  Most birds will develop an area of bare skin on their abdomen called a "brood patch" that allows the eggs to be in direct contact with the skin of the bird and thereby allows the bird to transfer body heat to the eggs.  Additional blood vessels develop in this brood patch area to bring even more heat to the surface of the skin.  After the eggs have hatched, the feathers grow back over this brood patch.

However, loons do not have this classic bare skin of a brood patch.  To have the bare skin would mean they would lose too much body heat to the cold water that is their home.

But loons do have a brood patch still covered with feathers.  And this area has an abundance of blood vessels that transfer the body heat to the eggs.  This area is near the back underside of the loon's belly, the very spot that you have watched the loon position the eggs so many times as you have watched the LoonCam.

This was the area that the doctor had to work so carefully to establish a space big enough to place the satellite transmitter and well as to make a passage through it to join with the other passage, where the antenna would go, which had been previously made.

It was an impossible balancing act.  Work carefully and methodically to make sure everything was right.  But also to work as quickly as possible to minimize the effect of the surgery and the anesthetic on the loon.

In our briefing session, we had talked about the possibility of actually losing one of the birds.  As Kevin had said, 'the worst possible outcome'.  This was real.  And here we were face to face with it.  A misstep now could be catastrophic.  Holding a loon under anesthesia for a length of time, also took a toll.

The minimum amount of anesthesia was used to just keep the loon 'knocked out'.

Then when there was a leg or body movement, or a fight against the tubes in the throat, just enough anesthesia was given to make sure the loon was comfortable....but not too much that would be harmful or even fatal to him.

A constant balancing act.

The doctor worked carefully  as he made his way through the mass of blood vessels.  There was some blood but compared to what there would have been without his skill it was minimal.  But it stood out starkly like a red stop sign on a white towel.

After more than 45 minutes of surgery, it was time to try the fit of the transmitter.  The sterile package was opened and the satellite transmitter was carefully removed.  The transmitter was fitted into the space that had been prepared.  Then some adjustments.  Another fitting.  Some more adjustments.  And finally it was time to actually put it in place.

The transmitter is a relatively small item but not insignificant.  Much of the bulk of it is the battery pack which powers the unit.  Picture if you will 3 AA batteries taped together.  That is about the size of the transmitter unit.  From this protrudes a wire about a foot long.  This wire is the antenna.

About this time, someone stuck their head in the trailer and said they were finished banding the two chicks and wondered if we were ready for the next loons to be captured.  The decision was made to release the two chicks - now sporting new bands and 'bling' around their legs - in order to minimize the stress on them but to hold off on capturing the next loons until we were finished with this one and we knew that it was doing okay.

So cars left in a rush to get the chicks back to the lake that they had been taken from.  And where mom was probably still waiting and wondering where everyone had gone.  She had just been too cagey to be captured so the decision had been made to take the male and the chicks and leave her on the lake.

I had wanted to go out of the trailer to see and hold the chicks but I knew I could do that with the next pair.  Or even at the next lake.  It was a decision I would come to regret.

Right now, there was a loon that was commanding everyone's attention.

The antenna wire was carefully threaded up through the passage that had been made through his body.

And then the satellite transmitter and battery pack were carefully fitted into the space that had been made for them.

Then it was time to close.

With the skilled hands of a surgeon, the vet carefully pulled and stitched tissue into place.  Antibiotics were used liberally to prevent any kind of infection setting in.  With the lower and larger incision now stitched up, it was time to close the upper incision around the antenna protruding from the top of the loon.  And when that was done, it was over.

Now came the critical part of bringing the loon out from under the anesthesia.  Anesthesia was withdrawn and puffs of air went into the lungs to help flush the anesthesia out of its system.  Local anesthetic was applied to the incision areas to give him relief from any pain for some hours.

The surgery had taken just over an hour.

The loon gradually began to regain consciousness.  He tried to lift his head and look around but would then drift off again.  The tubes were taken out of his throat and he was set up in as natural a position as possible under the circumstances while someone supported his head.

As he more and more came out from under the anesthetic, he began to try to move around so he was moved back into the carrying crate.  He was not yet ready to be returned to the lake.  He still needed monitoring.

But it was decided to send the capture team to the second lake to begin the capture process

As the loon started being more awake, we moved him outside where the air was cooler and fresher.  But he was still pretty groggy.  He would try to raise his head and look around.  Then he would lean over against the side of the crate.  This was repeated over and over.

After about an hour, the capture team came back.  They had only been able to capture one loon.  But it was the male so the second surgery began.  They actually had the female in the net but she made a move in a different direction than the netter had anticipated.  She spread her wings and was able to bridge herself across the net and escape.  Since we were starting to run behind schedule, it was decided to settle for the male and not try any more for the female or the two chicks.

I was disappointed that they had not been able to capture the chicks.  I had been anticipating so much being able to hold a live chick and observe it up close.  But there was still another lake to go.  I would do it there.

As the surgery was underway on the second loon, I talked to some of the students to get there reactions to the evening.  They were all in awe of what they had had the privilege to be a part of.  To observe these magnificent loons up close.  And to be a part of research like this that could add so much to our knowledge about loons.  Especially in light of the dangers of the oil spill that they will possibly be flying back into this fall.  And to learn more about what they do on their wintering grounds, where there is such a huge lack of information.  It would have been good to have had both females as well so that we could learn more about their interaction or lack of interaction during the winter months.  But what we have could add so much knowledge!

As the first loon became more alert, yet still very quiet, several of the students asked if they could see it close up or even touch it.  They were allowed to reach inside the crate and gently stroke the loon.  He made no protest although he was still pretty groggy.  They all commented how soft the head and neck were.  That it felt more like feathers rather than fur.

Several of them also commented about how soft the chicks had been.  One said 'it is almost like holding a bunny, not a bird', which is true.  A couple also commented how 'squishy' they felt.  So very soft and cuddly.  My chance would come to hold a chick at the next lake.

For now, we still had a loon undergoing surgery in the trailer.

[to be continued]