I volunteered to monitor loon activity on the lake where I reside and so I have become one of the Wisconsin Loon Citizen Scientists. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is conducting a study of loons in Northern Wisconsin to develop a model to predict population estimates and also study stressors such as mercury exposure, loss of habitat, predation, and disturbances caused by human activity.
My job has been to survey the lake, monitor loon activity, determine if the loons are banded, and record the data. Here on Towanda Lake, the territorial pair is not banded and produced two chicks, though, only one chick has survived.
On August 4th three DNR scientists came to the boat landing around 9:30 pm and I met them there. When I arrived there was a tarp laid out on the ground under the landing's light with various boxes and devices laid out.
I didn't realize that we'd be bringing the loons back to shore where the banding takes place as well as a blood draw, feather clipping, and weighing.
We waited until it was pitch dark to go onto the lake in search of the loons. I accompanied the scientists in the boat to watch the capture of the loons.
Spotlights and lights attached at the forehead were used to locate the loons on the lake. The family was found together, which was unusual. Generally, according to one of the scientists, the chick at 6-7 weeks is left alone at night. (correction: it is not often that both adults are found with a chick 6-7 weeks old, but one is generally close by.) As soon as the loons became aware of us, one of the parents began to move away from the family group. Using a huge net which is larger than our muskie net, one of the scientists scooped up the largest loon which was trying to lead us away from the other parent with the chick. I was surprised that it only took one attempt. Of course the net twisted and it took awhile to right the net, untangle the loon's legs, and gather the bird into temporary captivity without injury to the bird or the scientist. We had three plastic storage containers with lids in the boat ready for each bird. Once in the container with the lid attached the loon settled down. At the time there must have been a lot of noise from the loon, but I don't remember it. I do remember some squawks, but not the normal loon sounds.
We then proceeded to locate the remaining loons. The chick submerged and the parent swam in the opposite direction. Again the DNR scientist was quick to scoop up the parent and this time the net didn't twist so the loon was quickly removed from the net and placed in a container. The chick took a little longer to capture. As soon as we would see it and move closer, it would see us and submerge. The scientists had brought along a recording with sounds that a parent makes. The recording helped to attract the chick and it was finally scooped up and we returned to shore.
The loons in their containers were brought ashore. The scientists began with the largest loon who was the male. They began by weighing the bird. "My loons" seemed to be average.
The loons were placed on the tarp where blood was drawn. It will be analyzed for mercury content which will let the scientists know
how much mercury the loons have been exposed to this summer on the lake. They didn't flinch when the needle was injected and were fairly quiet while being handled by the scientists. (Or maybe that was due to the expertise of the scientists.) The scientists had to be careful because the adults can cause injury with their mouths and beaks.
Each loon had different colored bands placed on each leg. Band combinations are recorded by leg, and position of the band on the leg and each bird has a unique combination. The birds can be identified in successive years as they return to the lakes or are found in another part of the country (alive or dead).
The metal/silver band is the US Fish and Wildlife Band. It is placed on the right leg of adults and left leg of chicks. Once chicks leave the area in the fall they will not return until mature, 3 years from now. So when a silver band is seen on an adult loon on it's left leg, the bird has survived its migration, life on the ocean, and returned to its birth place.
The last thing that is done is to clip a feather from each wing. The analysis of mercury content will let the scientists know the amount of mercury that the birds have been exposed to over their lifetime.
Below is the chick. It's not very experienced on land, though, all loons are awkward on land because their legs are set so far back on their long bodies. It's coloring is different from it's parents, much more muted. The chick's bite doesn't hurt either. I was able to feel the chick and was surprised by how warm it was.
Each loon in turn was returned to its container. The male and female began calling to each other so they were removed from the light so they wouldn't get agitated and hurt themselves. All three were returned to the same area of the lake where they had been captured. The next morning I was out early to check on them even though the scientists assured me that they would be back to normal as if nothing had happened in the night. And they were.
If you want to learn more about loons, Citizen Loon Scientists or Loon Rangers check out one of these links:
The Loon Project,
All About Loons,
"Rangers" do everything in their power to protect the loon or,
Oneida County is the center of loon behavioral research
Thanks to Jeff Smith for sharing these photographs taken during the process.