When Joel and Tracey Hays left Ohio to start a new chapter as northern Minnesota resort owners in 2005, it was the allure of loons that helped seal the deal.
Their family was touring a dozen possible resorts to purchase when Tracey spotted a surprise along the shore of Bear Paw Resort: an egg laid in a man-made loon nest.
Tracey laughs to remember how distracted she was. She wanted to watch the loons as much as tour the property on Two Inlets Lake, located north of Park Rapids and just south of Itasca State Park. Fortunately, their three children, now ages 17 to 21, all voted on Bear Paw for their new home. Tracey’s passion for the lake’s loons has flourished ever since.
A loon lover since childhood vacations in Canada, Tracey can tell you the first year she spotted a loon pair cooing and talking to their fuzzy chicks: 1991.
“That was it,” she says. “I was swept in from then on.”
The Hayses sold their family business — Ohio’s second-largest cider mill, fruit orchard and farm — and relocated to Bear Paw in 2005. Bear Paw is among a handful of family-run seasonal resorts on the lake, surrounded by Two Inlets State Forest. Bald eagles soar overhead, blue herons troll the shores and diving loons bob up in the water to surprise anglers and paddlers. During evening bonfires near the beach, the yodel of loons ripples through the darkness and echoes across the water.
The sound of loons — especially the distinctive staccato tremolos — knits itself into carefree memories, an evocative summer soundtrack for cabin vacations and Up North reunions.
“It’s so haunting, so beautiful and indicative of Minnesota,” says Lori Naumann, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources information officer for nongame wildlife. “They’re just elegant and exquisite birds.”
There are many reasons to admire Minnesota’s state bird. For one, they look unlike any other creatures with their red eyes, sleek profile and vivid black-and-white markings. They have amazing diving abilities — they’ve been tracked plunging as deep as 200 feet. Loons migrate to the Gulf of Mexico for the winter, Naumann says.
A battle for territory
They’re also highly territorial, which can lead to some brutal battles among males. It also means they often return to the same lakes and nesting sites for six to seven years. For vacationers, resort owners and lakeside residents who spend their summers watching the loons — especially as they raise their chicks — it’s impossible not to feel attached.
Tracey has become the chronicler of the resort’s loons, trolling the lakeshore each day, armed with a hefty Nikon camera she purchased to capture their interactions, from courting to nesting to teaching their young to getting ready for a journey to Lake Michigan and migration south each fall.
The loons have just returned from their winters on the balmy Gulf shores — Tracey spotted the first one almost two weeks ago, just after open water appeared on Two Inlets Lake. For the next several days, while the last of the ice was still melting, loons could be seen trolling shorelines for the best, safest nesting spots, often in secluded bays along boggy areas not easy for four-footed predators to access.
Many years ago, individual families and lakeside associations such as the one on Mantrap Lake, 26 miles to the east of Bear Paw Resort, decided to start helping the loons by providing anchored, floating man-made nests. According to Steve Maanum, who lives along Mantrap Lake on the edge of Paul Bunyan State Forest, about half of the lake’s almost 20 loon pairs will use the ready-made nesting rafts, which they’ve been making since 1990. A group of volunteers places them in the bays of Mantrap’s 21 miles of shoreline as soon as the ice is out each spring.
There is no guarantee, however, that loons will accept the human help. Last year the Hayses replaced their worn-out cedar nest with a sturdier aluminum version with a protective mesh canopy. The aluminum nest had been highly successful on Mantrap Lake.
The Hayses observed as a female loon kept checking out the new nest. She seemed good with the change. But the male — who must approve the nesting site — wouldn’t claim it. The loons were already behind schedule with 2013’s late ice-out, Tracey said, so she and Joel went into “emergency mode” and spent a few hours building a new wooden nest fitted with upright diamond willow sticks to protect chicks from eagles that might dive in for lunch.
By the next day, Bear Paw guests spotted the loons copulating, but after 10 days the nest remained empty. Then an older, larger and presumably more virile male swooped in, because eggs finally appeared, Tracey recalls.
They were elated to see the first egg hatch and a chick appear on July 13, then saddened when shortly afterward kayakers scared away the adult loons who didn’t return to the nest to finish incubating. The second chick was never born. It was a tough loss after the Hayses’ hard work preparing nests.
“It was kind of a dramatic, exciting season,” Tracey says.
Watching the chicks grow
While Bear Paw had only the one chick born off its shore last year, there are always other loons on the lake. The Hayses and their guests had the chance to watch a set of loon triplets grow up a few summers ago. Tracey, who volunteers with the Minnesota DNR’s loon monitoring program, has learned to look carefully to distinguish loons by the black-and-white marks on their neck. The distinctive lines can resemble letters such as N, Y, Z or W.
This helps her decipher the females from the males and to better appreciate their different personalities as they nurture and raise their young. In the first week or two, the fuzzy chicks ride on their parents’ backs. It helps keep them safe from large predatory fish, but it also prepares them for their first diving lessons with the parent holding them in place while plunging into the water.
“They’re incredible parents,” Tracey says of the loons. “They are so smart and so loyal and so caring.”
Like Tracey, resort guests get pulled into the summer life of loons, watching the babies learn new skills and listening to the calls. Tracey is happy to help guests distinguish the hoots that say “Hello” to fellow loons from the wavering tremolos that warn of eagles and other dangers.
For now, she’s keeping an eye on Two Inlets’ newly returned loons, including one pair and the eggs she hopes they’ll soon hatch. “Spring is my favorite time,” says Tracey. “Everything just breathes with more birds and more life.
Lisa Meyers McClintick (LisaMcClintick.com) is a freelance travel writer based in Minnesota.