One of the most ambitious loon research projects ever conducted will allow bird lovers to track 13 young Minnesota loons as they make their way south to warmer climes.

The loons, which are wearing electronic tracking devices, are gathering as part of large groups on Minnesota lakes, preparing to make their way to the Gulf Coast, where they will live for the next two years as they mature. A website created by the researchers tracks each loon in the study as it moves from lake to lake (

Scientists will use these and other loons from Wisconsin and Michigan to determine what effect last year's Gulf oil spill will have on the birds' long-term health. The birds will return home in two years and, when they are five years old, they will mate and start reproducing.

The tracking effort is part of a larger study led by Kevin Kenow of the U.S. Geological Survey designed to figure out why so many loons die from botulism poisoning in southwest Lake Michigan. Loons from Minnesota and elsewhere usually stop there to fatten up for their long flight south. But for reasons that are not understood, large numbers of them are often found dead from poisoning.

Some experts believe the deaths may be linked to invasive species in the Great Lakes. The birds are eating invasive Goby fish, which eat invasive Quagga mussels that could carry the deadly bacteria.

Researchers attach geo-locator tags and satellite transmitters to the loons' legs, which keep a record of where they go and how deep they dive for food. They hope the data will tell them where the loons encounter contaminated fish, and how botulism gets into the aquatic food web.

The difficult part comes later, when researchers have to re-capture the birds and remove the transmitters to collect the data. But that won't happen until next spring.

The project includes $250,000 from Minnesota Lottery funds dedicated to environmental initiatives.

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394