Wednesday, July 21, 2010 10:11am CDT

73 degrees  Sunny   Calm
These are the days that summer dreams are made of.
Unlimited sunshine.  Comfortably warm.  But not hot and humid.  Blue sky from one end to the other.  And even bluer lakes.  'From the Land of Sky Blue Waters'! 
And of course, loons.
Loons are the exclamation mark at the end of a sentence!
Last night, the call of the loons echoed back and forth across the lake.  Wails.  So they were 'good calls' with the loons simply saying 'I am here.  Where are you?'  One wail after another.  A wail on one side of the lake.  Answered by a wail from the other side of the lake.  Over and over.  Beautiful and even more beautiful.
I wish you could have been here!
I decided to do a second update because I knew you would be wondering about botulism poisoning which I mentioned in the last post and which is part of the loon study.
Botulism poisoning has been a problem on the Great Lakes over the last 8 to 10 years with die offs of loons as well as thousands of other birds.
Let's start with the very basics and let me share a little bit from my very limited knowledge.
Botulism is a serious life-threatening condition caused by a toxin produced by a bacteria.
In the absence of air (anaerobic conditions), this bacteria produces one of the most lethal toxins known to man.  Even the smallest amount of this toxin can be fatal to people.
Because the bacteria grows and produces this toxin in the absence of oxygen, it is one of the greatest dangers from canned products, especially home-canned goods that are not properly handled and treated with heat for a sufficient amount of time.
You may not realize that you are already familiar with this toxin.  It is what is known as "BoTox"!  Botulism toxin.  BoTox is used in small amounts in cosmetic procedures to partially paralyze facial muscles which cause wrinkles.
But BoTox 'treatments for loons are NOT a good thing!
Botulism toxin can and has caused the death of hundreds if not thousands of loons on the Great Lakes during their migration.
It started about 12 years ago on Lake Huron and then Lake Erie and has spread westward through the Great Lakes over the last few years.  In 2007, there was a die-off of thousands of waterfowl on Lake Michigan, including hundreds of loons.  There is one count that says as many as 2,000 loons may have died in this one die-off!  As of yet, there has been no similar die-off on Lake Superior but the fear is that it is only a matter of time.
No one knows for sure why the botulism poisoning happens which produces the subsequent death of loons.  That is why this tracking of loons will hopefully add to our knowledge of what is actually going on.
Here is the current theory that is believed to be most likely.
There are a number of "invasive species" that have been introduced into the Great Lakes, probably from the bilge water of ocean going vessels from other parts of the world, specifically Europe.
Three of those invasive species that seem to be implicated are the round goby, Zebra mussels and especially quagga mussels.
Here is the theorized path of how the botulism toxin gets to our loons.
As I mentioned, botulism bacteria produce a toxin in the absence of oxygen.  These bacteria are all around us in our environment.  They also exist in the sediment and decaying vegetation at the bottom of lakes.  Quagga mussels are 'filtering' animals as are all clams and oysters and mussels.  That is, they suck water in, filter out 'food' and expel the water.  They also filter out and concentrate some of the 'botox' and concentrate it in their bodies.
I can hear you saying 'why doesn't it paralyze and kill them?'  Scientists feel that the quagga mussel's nervous system may be so primitive that it is not affected.
The quagga mussel (a non-native species that is new to the United States) concentrates this poison in its body.  Then along comes a small fish called the round goby.  The round goby is also a non-native species that has recently found its way into the Great Lakes.  The round goby eats quagga mussels and thus takes the poison into its body.  It will eventually die from the poison.  But loons apparently love round goby.  It is a fish and loons love fish.  It is a small fish not much bigger than a large minnow.  Loons love that size fish!
Before the goby dies, the loon eats the goby and thus the poison now finds its way into the loon's body!
And within hours, the loons muscles start to become paralyzed.  It develops a condition called 'limberneck' syndrome.  The muscles of the neck become paralyzed, the loon can no longer hold its head up and it drowns.
So if this is a new situation caused or made worse by invasive species, the possible impact on our loons is very serious.  That is why understanding exactly what is going on is so important.  This USGS project and study is part of trying to understand what is going on.  I didn't want to say much about it until the USGS had issued their press release.
I hope that this information helps you understand more about what is going on.  And may be the first time that many of you have even heard of this problem.
It is yet one more example of the many challenges that our beloved loons face.
So, the next time you hear that beautiful call of a loon, remind yourself how truly special it is!  And how it is under constant threat from so many different directions.  Things that we never think about.  Don't let all of the threats overwhelm your view of the loons though.
Just sit back and enjoy the "call of the north" and realize what a privilege it is for you to hear the loons!