On the way to the WRI, I saw the loon and knew it had a problem. I grabbed a camera and went back to see. The lake is right next to Highway 169. I pulled over and, as traffic whizzed by, snapped some pictures out the window.
With the temperature in the 20’s, open water had shrunk to the small area in the picture—too small for a loon to take off. With their heavy bodies and small wings, they have to patter across the water farther than any water bird I know of to lift off. The open water is now too small.
The loon tried over and over to take wing—always with the same result. In this sequence, the loon began by flapping hard and pattering across the water with its huge feet. It got up almost far enough for its wings to clear the water and then saw that it was running out of water and had to abort. It tried to land on the little water still available but skidded onto the thin ice causing it to splinter and the wave causing a jagged splinter in the ice. The loon swam back through the shards of broken ice to try again.
As I watched, the loon also dove for food but never brought up a fish. It took a nap for 10-15 minutes and then resumed its efforts to fly away—always trying to take off heading west. Less than a mile in that direction are two deeper lakes that are slower to freeze. There was no wind to help it get airborne.
I got several calls from people who spotted the loon’s predicament and wondered what to do.
With a cold night coming (temperature now 24°F) I suspect the small open area will freeze over tonight. My suggestion would be to use a boat and oars to break open this very thin ice in a wide path at least a hundred feet long; or, if there is no open water, net the loon and take it to one of the open lakes. Loons cannot take off from land or ice; but once airborne, they are fast flyers as they migrate from here to the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico.
Thank you for all you do,
Lynn Rogers, Biologist, Wildlife Research Institute and North American Bear Center
Wildlife Research Institute
145 West Conan Street
Ely, Minnesota 55731 USA