Sunday, October 22, 2023

Lonesome little loon likes a lift from Charlie Garr

public use photo from

Our family has had property on the south end of Long Lake, “in the stumps”, since 1969, and this area has always been used in the spring by nesting loons. As the growth of shoreline cattails gradually increased over the years, basically preventing access to the shoreline, the loons have become more and more inclined to use artificial nesting platforms (ANP) in this area. The ANP currently in use at this site was originally built for an eagle scout project by neighbor Joe Quehl. This ANP has been maintained, upgraded and deployed for 10 years. It has produced loon chicks in all 10 years.

Because I take care of this ANP, am a loon counter on Long Lake and often observe loon behavior on the lake – I have had many up close and personal experiences with loons.

This year a chick hatched on Wednesday June 21st. I had been giving the ANP space (wish everyone else would too), so I did not know if there was one egg or two. I observed the chick and mother loon throughout the day and at 10PM when I could last see, the chick was swimming around the ANP, not yet strong enough to walk up the ramp to the nest. The mom was back sitting on the nest and the dad had not been seen all day. We have had two chicks before, but they had always hatched on the same day, so this going back to the nest for another night was a first. I thought to myself – wow this chick is really vulnerable spending the night on the water without a parent looking after it.

Scheduled at 7AM Thursday was the June monthly loon count. Newly hatched chicks are very hard to see and include in the counts, so we rely on those close to the nest sites to tip us off that there are chicks to look out for. In this case that person was me, so I was out with the binoculars at 6AM hoping to see all the chicks and parents using this ANP. I saw nothing. No sign of life on the ANP, no adults in view. Finally, at about 6:30 two adult loons appeared near the nest and started making a mournful racket. I thought to myself – did you guys drop the ball and come up with nothing, losing the chick overnight and the second egg turning out to not be viable? Then after about 10 more minutes of urgent loon calling, I noticed two little specks on the ANP. There were two chicks, success! The parents continued to call energetically and talked one of the chicks into jumping off, but they could not persuade the other to come with. I had to start the boat and go meet up with others to take the loon count, but I was able to say we had confirmed two chicks and two adults by our ANP.

After I got back from the loon count, I could see two adults and one chick out in the stumps. I couldn’t see the other chick but figured it must be out there and they will eventually come back and pick it up. About mid-morning I still had not seen the second chick, so curiosity got the best of me and I took a canoe out and saw that the second chick was tucked up against the grass sleeping on the far side of the ANP. I had lunch on our back deck which has a view of the ANP. By that time chick #2 had gotten stronger and was off the ANP swimming around and could even struggle his way back up the ramp. The parents and chick #1 had left the stumps and moved to the west shore. I thought they would come back for chick #2, wouldn’t they?

Later that afternoon the wind started picking up quite a bit from the south, so I thought I better check up on chick #2 again. I could faintly hear him peeping and he was actively looking for the parents and ranging further from the ANP. He was getting blown up against the cattails but was working his way to the main lake. I thought he’s ready now and he’s making his move but, if he gets around the corner, the strong wind and waves will push him straight north down the lake further from his parents, who were still on the west shore ignoring him. I made a quick decision to go out and observe him from closer range, so I grabbed a life jacket and a landing net and got in a kayak that was on our shore.

I saw where he was and looped around him and eased up to within about 20 feet of him and sat there as the strong south wind pushed us both up against the cattails. He continued to peep the whole time and seemed to be tiring from fighting the wind and weeds on the cattail edge. I thought to myself – I’m going to let him decide how this all plays out, and if he makes it to the main lake, I’ll track him. For about ten minutes we sat there looking at each other, him peeping the whole time. Then, to my surprise, he swam straight towards the kayak. I put the landing net in the water and he swam right into it! I lifted him and the net up, set them on the bow of the kayak and headed through the stumps and across the lake towards the parents.

As I approached the west shore the parents and chick #1 started backing away from me, the intruder, so I cut south of them a bit to where I thought that chick #2 would drift into the parents as I dumped him out of the net into the lake. Mission accomplished, right?

Except, as I backed away, the chick was imprinting on the kayak and was trying to follow me instead of going to his parents. Time for another on-the-fly adjustment, I tacked towards the north trying to J-hook around his parents, who were still trying to evade me, hoping this angle and the wind would put chick #2 and the parents on a collision course. It did! Once they saw each other the parents became very vocal and went over to the chick and seemed to check him out to see if he was really theirs. Once they were convinced of that the reunion celebration became even more spectacular with the mom even flapping her wings and dancing on the water. I quickly got out of the way and headed back to the east shore.

I am writing this on August 14 and the two chicks and parents are still together on the south end of the lake.

Disclaimer: the DNR’s advice for lost or thought to be abandoned wildlife young is to leave them alone and let nature take its course; most of the time it is best not to intervene.

Another of the articles from the Long Lake Association's Autumn 2023 Newsletter

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