Dennis Anderson: Officials catch and release, and learn from loons

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 21, 2013 - 12:17 AM

Wildlife officials mine valuable data — once they capture the birds.

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If we had been on a mosquito hunt, motoring across a darkened lake in north-central Minnesota, rather than a search for loons, our success would have been guaranteed.

This was about 10:30 Tuesday night, and Steve Houdek, a biological technician with the U.S. Geological Survey in La Crosse, Wis., was piloting a 16-foot aluminum boat, while two of his colleagues, biological technician Luke Fara and research wildlife biologist Kevin Kenow, crowded in the boat’s bow, with Kenow pointing a high-powered spotlight into the black night.

So far the beacon had illuminated only countless flying bugs, including the biting kind.

Also in the boat were Department of Natural Resources non-game wildlife program supervisor Carrol Henderson, and me.

The goal: To capture a nesting pair of adult loons and their lone chick, and bring them to shore, where blood and feather samples would be drawn, and special “geolocators’’ attached to a leg of each adult would be removed, so migration, diet and other information the gadgets had recorded could be downloaded.

Apprehending at least half of the 42 northern Minnesota loons fitted with the recording devices last year is an important part of a study to determine whether loons that nest in Minnesota but winter along the coast of Louisiana and other Southern states were harmed by the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

Impressively, the tiny electronic devices will give researchers a treasure trove of information, while the blood and feather samples will indicate the presence of contaminants, if any.

But no information can be gleaned unless the birds are captured, and so far this summer, Kenow and his crew have been beset by bad luck.

“If a loon pair has one or two chicks, our capturing success rate is about 95 percent,’’ Kenow said. “But when the chicks have been lost, as has occurred with some of our study birds this summer, capturing adults is more difficult. The chicks help keep the adults on the surface. Without them, the adults dive.’’

On one study lake this summer, a wind storm wiped out 11 nesting platforms, as well as the chicks being raised on them.

So capturing loons on the three Crow Wing County lakes that Kenow’s crew would visit Tuesday night was important.

Aiding their effort in locating the birds was an iPod and speaker, over which various loon calls could be played, including the wail, the yodel, the hoot or other variations of the haunting song that is unique to Minnesota’s state bird.

“There’s one adult,’’ Henderson said as Kenow’s roving spotlight illuminated a target bird. “And there’s the other, and the chick.’’

As Henderson spoke, stars flickered overhead and a half-moon glowed against the black sky.

Beneath these, Houdek guided the boat slowly, but directly, toward an adult loon. Bedazzled by the light, the bird allowed the boat near it, and in a flash, Kenow scooped it into an oversized fishing net.

Then he and Fara secured the bird so it couldn’t harm itself or them, before placing it in a large plastic container, its top punctured with air holes.

Soon the second adult loon also was captured, and then the chick, a bird of perhaps 6 weeks whose size rivaled that of an adult blue-winged teal.

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