Nature Notes: April – Return of the Loon – Austin Daily Herald


By Greta Wilkening

Trainee teacher/Naturalist

On a calm summer evening, the lake at my grandparents’ house glistens slightly in the fading light, revealing only the silhouettes of boaters passing by for dinner. A much smaller figure appears on the water, almost as if by magic. If his silhouette wasn’t clue enough, the call that comes from his direction a second later confirms my suspicions; the common loon — our state bird and symbol of the northern lakes — floats on the surface of the lake, its distinct, hauntingly beautiful voice echoing across the water.

Although it’s not yet summer, April brings with it the return of the Loonie, starting in southern and central Minnesota. In winter, common loons settle in coastal waters along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coasts, but in April they are ready to return north, stopping along lakes from southern and central Minnesota during their migration.

With the common loon chosen as the state bird in 1961, Minnesota is home to more loons (about 12,000) than any other state except Alaska. But for such an abundant and beloved bird, the common loon is in danger of becoming extinct. Although it is not listed as a threatened species or even a species of special concern in Minnesota, a combination of threats – namely human-induced disturbances such as climate change, coastal development, and lead and mercury – will pose a danger to our beloved state bird for years to come.

I do hope that I will be able to hear the call of the loon throughout my life, and that generations to come will share this same wonder of seeing loons appear as if by magic on the water. However, for that future to become a reality, we will need to make changes to conserve and protect loons: changes that start with awareness.

Mercury and lead pollution, for example, are serious but preventable threats. The greatest source of mercury pollution comes from burning fossil fuels, especially coal, which releases mercury into the air and eventually enters water bodies through rain. Mercury poisoning affects the nervous system of loons and is passed from adults to eggs, meaning that chicks will be born with higher mercury levels than their parents (a similar effect to DDT on eagles). The result of mercury intake is reproductive failure, ultimately endangering the future of the species. Similarly, a loon that has lead in its system – usually from eating fish that have ingested lead shot – will result in death within weeks.

The Department of National Resources, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and others have undertaken to monitor loon populations in Minnesota to better understand these threats and what is needed for these birds to continue to thrive in our state. . Currently, 20% of loon deaths are caused by lead poisoning, and much of it is attributable to preventable human actions.

Common loons are special for more than their symbolic and cultural significance in Minnesota, and are anything but “common.” They are expert divers, diving for about 45 seconds on average; even their chicks can dive for 30 seconds from just eight days old! They are one of the few birds with strong – not hollow – bones, with the extra weight helping them dive up to 250 feet. Even though they spend a lot of time in the water, they can fly over 75 mph once in the air! With such a magnificent creature in play, the common loon deserves our attention, care, and conservation efforts to safeguard its future.

Nature Center Events

Saturday: Friends of Nature sale. Open to the public at the Ruby Rupner Auditorium, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

April 4: Registration for summer courses begins online at 9 a.m.

April 6: Live Bird Program in the Interpretive Center Classroom, 4 p.m.

April 9: Statewide Star Party at Sola Fide. Free open house, 7 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.

April 17: Interpretation center closed

April 19: Audubon presentation. Open to the public/free, Interpretation Center classroom, 7-8 p.m.

April 21th : Friends and Volunteer Appreciation Event: Live Eagle Show. Must RSVP, 6:30-7:30 p.m.

April 22: Foam Ball Crafts for Earth Day, Free Open House at the Interpretive Center, 3:30-4:45 p.m.

April 23: Sola Fide Observatory. Free open house, 8-10 p.m.


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