Loons to leave soon for saltwater in the southGliding across quiet, rippling waters, the loon graces area lakes with its distinctive, flicker-patterned plumage and abrupt, almost regal profile.
By: Wendy Wilson, Alexandria Echo Press
Gliding across quiet, rippling waters, the loon graces area lakes with its distinctive, flicker-patterned plumage and abrupt, almost regal profile.
The most common breed of loon in Minnesota is, well, the common loon, but you will also find smatterings of red throat or pacific loons here.
“Loons are the most studied bird in North America,” Lake Carlos Park Area Naturalist Alex Watson said.
Loon populations in Minnesota are steady, according to Watson, with about 12,000 birds living in the state during the summer.
In mid-September 2010, 150 loons were counted on Lake Carlos.
Loons eat primarily fish. After ice forms across the rivers and lakes, they are unable to access the fish to get the nutrients they need and must migrate.
“The days are getting shorter,” Watson said. “That is the loon’s cue [to migrate].”
In 1994, the Department of Natural Resources began surveying the loons.
Several birds are tracked by satellite to monitor their migration patterns.
Watson reviewed the movements of a loon carrying a transmitter monitored by satellite last year.
On October 16, the loon had left Minnesota and flew into Wisconsin.
The birds migrate in large groups called rafts, heading from northern freshwater to saltwater in the south.
Three days later, the loon was flying over Lake Michigan.
By December 3, the avian flier was headed south, down to the area of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico where about 200 million gallons of oil had spilled into the ocean.
The loon quickly moved out of the spill area and headed to Tampa Bay where he spent the winter lounging under the Florida sun.
While residing in Florida, the birds lose their dramatic Minnesota plumage in favor of the more drab attire of plain gray and brown feathers. Their throats grow white and the spots on their backs disappear.
Additionally, their eyes lose much of their vibrant red color, mellowing to reddish-brown.
Why do loons have red eyes?
“Red eyes could help them see better,” Watson said. “It makes different wavelengths easier to see, but no one knows for sure.”
Juvenile birds will spend about two years in Florida maturing, according to Watson.
RETURN TO MINNESOTA
The cycle continues. Loons will begin flying back to Minnesota to breed in late winter.
“By mid-March, he is following the ice,” Watson said. “He is waiting for ice out during the first week of April on a breeding lake in Minnesota.”
April 2 is the 20-year average that loons have been arriving in northern Minnesota.
The birds generally stay in groups of 17 to 25. The males will usually fly north first to determine whether the ice is out yet.
Watson first spotted a loon in the area this year on April 11, reflecting a later ice out.
More information on common loon movements and migration may be found on the U.S. Geological Survey’s website at http://www.umesc.usgs.gov/terrestrial/migratory_birds/loons/migrations.html
On Saturday, September 24, Lake Carlos State Park presents the program “Loon Migration: Lake Carlos to Florida” from 7 to 8 p.m. Interested participants should meet Watson at the Visitor Center.
Although he is well-versed on the habits of a multitude of animals, Watson said with a smile, “Birds are what make me the happiest.”