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

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

• • •

Waiting on shore to greet Kenow, his crew and the loons was DNR non-game biologist Kevin Woizeschke of the agency’s Brainerd office.

A sort of portable operating room was soon set up, with headlamps providing most of the light. One by one, the three birds were secured on their backs to have the blood and feather samples removed. The adults also had their geolocators taken off and stored for transport to La Crosse. And each bird was fitted with an identification leg band.

None of this comes cheap.

Paid for by the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund with state lottery-sales proceeds, the three-year project will consume $250,000. The effort is overseen by Henderson, and is cooperative between the DNR and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Henderson said that next year he’ll apply to the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), which advises the Legislature on the lottery fund, to continue the project, which also includes American white pelicans.

“We need to determine whether Minnesota’s nesting loons and its pelicans were affected by the oil spill, and if so, how,’’ Henderson said. “There is the potential for recovering damages if harm to the birds can be demonstrated.’’

To date, the study has shown that many Minnesota loons fly to Lake Michigan in early fall before continuing south a month later. Additionally, changes in pressure documented by the geolocators show that while at Lake Michigan, loons routinely dive as deep as 140 feet to feed near the lake’s bottom.

The dives might last as long as 2.5 minutes.

“We’re worried that in the Gulf of Mexico much of the oil residue and the dispersant used to break up the oil have collected on the ocean bottom, where loons feed,’’ Henderson said.

Valuable as the geolocators have been to the study, they aren’t perfect. One problem: The adhesive that holds the gadget to a loon’s leg occasionally has failed, resulting in loss of the $1,000 recorder and data it collected.

In similar studies with ducks, external transmitters that relay information to a satellite have been used.

“But diving birds like loons don’t tolerate external transmitters very well,’’ Kenow said. “We could implant the transmitters, but it’s an expensive process, and it has to be done surgically.’’

A half-hour or so after the loons were brought to shore, they were returned to the water, first the adults, then the chick.

The birds were set free in the territory the two parents had established this spring.

This was about midnight, and for Kenow and his crew, more work awaited.

Loons on two more Crow Wing County lakes required their attention. And the next night they would attempt to capture loons on two lakes farther north still, near Ely.

“Minnesota has only about 12,000 loons, and we’re the only northern state that’s tracking this potential problem,’’ Henderson said. “Loons are our state bird. What happens to them is important.’’

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