Natural Connections: Learning From Banded Loons

"Banded loons are incredibly valuable for loon research."

Natural Connections: Learning From Banded Loons

With a dozen sets of eyes scanning the water, it took us almost no time at all to spot the family of loons. A little cheer went up from the pontoon boat when we finally got a clear look at the fuzzy chick paddling around behind their parents. Since this was the first Loon Pontoon Tour on Lake Owen of 2023, the chick was as much a surprise to me as to the participants on this Museum program.

I pegged this little fuzzball with the big brown eyes at about 2 weeks old, even though they were swimming independently behind Mom and Dad and not riding on a safe, warm back. Zooming in on that cute little beak, I happened to get the tail end of an adult loon in the photo, too. Below all those snazzy black and white feathers and quicksilver waves, there were some other, more unusual colors, too: this loon was wearing leg bands!

Bird banding is an old, if not ancient, practice, but loon banding has only been possible since 1988 when researcher Dave Evers developed a way to capture and band loons on Michigan’s Seney National Wildlife Refuge. His technique revolutionized loon research by allowing identification of individual loons from afar, without recapture. Colored leg bands are how we know that loon pairs split their parenting duties roughly 50/50, and that loons can live at least 34 years.

A week later, I revisited that same loon family (the chicks grow so fast!) and got even clearer photos of the loon’s leg bands through the crystal clear water of Lake Owen. This time, I emailed the photos to researcher Walter Piper. His Loon Project blog at loonproject.org is a great resource for updates on loon behavior, ecology, population, and more. He wrote back “This looks like white over green, green over silver. If so, it is this bird, banded in 2003 as a chick on Turtle Flambeau Flowage!”

Wow! A 20-year-old loon, still producing chicks, 50+ miles from where he was hatched! I asked Piper for more information, but this wasn’t one of the hundreds of loons he’s banded. Instead, we reached out to Mike Meyer, a biologist with the Wisconsin DNR’s Science Services department, now retired. Mike confirmed that “yes this loon was banded as a chick on August 5, 2003 in a loon territory on the Turtle Flambeau Flowage we termed Beaver Creek. Beyond that we have no information, that is until your observations…which is excellent dispersal data…Always nice to hear from our past loon acquaintances...”

As it turns out, Mike has many past loon acquaintances from his 25+ years of research.

I gave Mike a call last week, hoping to hear a story of the night this particular loon, “white over green, green over silver” was captured. But as Mike began describing his summer field seasons, I quickly understood why he didn’t remember this individual loon.

Each spring, Mike and his team began monitoring loons on the 50-60 lakes in their study area to see which pairs had chicks. A fluffy little chick is too small to take a leg band, so researchers waited until the chicks were 5-6 weeks old. Then the fun really began.

Their “day” started at 10 p.m. as the 3-5 person research team arrived on the first lake just in time to use the last light to spot the loons. When it was completely dark, they piled into a small boat with a small motor, a spotlight, a musky net, and a boom box. Using the spotlight, the researchers sought out the shining white breast feathers of the loons. Then they used the boom box to play the sounds of peeping chicks and other loon calls. This brought the family close, and kept them at the surface to investigate.

You always try to capture the female first, Mike told me. “She’s the first one to get outta there, because she wants to live to reproduce another day.” That’s what the musky net is for. Then, the chick can be dipped up, and finally the male, although “circumstances make shuffle the deck,” Mike chuckled, stating a fact of fieldwork. The loons were housed in dark plastic tubs with air holes, and everyone headed to shore where the banding, measuring, and sometimes blood drawing, could take place on stable ground.

“It’s a bit of an operation,” explained Mike. He had stories of skin torn and bruised from loons’ strong, serrated beaks, and having to swim for a boat that wasn’t pulled up all the way, and even having the sheriff called on them for acting suspiciously with spotlights at 2 a.m.

With all of this, they averaged 3 lakes per night, caught 95% of the loons they attempted, and banded more than 2,000 loons. Mike’s work on mercury toxicity in loons helped establish Wisconsin’s 2010 mercury emission reduction rule for coal-burning power plants. Banded loons have contributed immensely to our knowledge of their population dynamics, migration, threats they face on their summer breeding grounds, and more. “Loons are biosentinels of lake health,” Mike told me. “If you have loons on your lake, you’re doing it right.”

I wonder if “white over green, green over silver” remembers that dark night 20 years ago when he first met Mike Meyer. Probably not. But as part of the valuable long-term research on banded loons, both Mike’s and the loon’s contributions to science will be remembered for decades to come.  

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Our new exhibit: “The Northwoods ROCKS!” is open now! Our Summer Calendar of Events is ready for registration! Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to see what we are up to.

Last Update: Jul 19, 2023 7:36 am CDT

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