Crosslake firefighters capture loon trapped in open water
Waterfowl left behind typically see poor outcomes, rehabbers say
Firefighters captured a common loon from open water on Cross Lake on Saturday, Dec. 11, in an attempt to give the state bird a fighting chance to join the rest of its species in a warmer climate.
The loon was first spotted by a wildlife photographer Friday, Dec. 10, and staff members with the National Loon Center in Crosslake confirmed the bird appeared to be surrounded by ice in a small patch of open water southeast of the channel between Cross and Rush lakes.
Working in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and those familiar with loon rescues, firefighters donned survival suits and carried muskie nets as tools to scoop the bird from the frigid waters.
Jory Danielson, a 10-year member of the Crosslake Fire Department, said it was the first water rescue of human or animal in which he participated.
“Once I got in the water and was just a few feet from this loon that was staring at me and I was staring at it, and there wasn’t really any separation other than the water between us - I guess it was kind of surreal to understand or put into perspective what was going on,” Danielson said Tuesday. “I was out in the middle of Cross Lake with a net and a loon in a hole in the ice. … They’re much bigger than they seem when they’re just in the water swimming in the summer.”
After about a half-hour of the loon diving and resurfacing, it climbed onto the ice, providing Danielson and fellow firefighter Reed Nelson the opportunity to get close enough to capture the animal and place it in a container to be transported to a wildlife rehabilitation center.
Unfortunately for the loon and those invested in its survival, an examination by those at Wild and Free in Garrison revealed the bird suffered a traumatic injury to its wing, leaving it unable to fly. Dr. Katie Baratto reported Tuesday that staff euthanized the loon.
“It was an old trauma. There was actually a piece of bone missing,” Baratto said. “So I would suspect a boat or Jet Ski strike, but there’s no way to prove it.”
John Mobeck, executive director of the National Loon Center, said once it was clear a loon was trapped on Cross Lake, staff members sought opinions on the feasibility of staging a rescue. He said intervention can be tricky, particularly with loons, but the possibility of lead poisoning passing up the food chain to scavengers like bald eagles means it’s about protecting more than the loon itself.
“Just swallowing one sinker, one jig that’s a lead jig or sinker generally kills the loon,” Mobeck said. “It’s a very fatal situation. So for, you know, to the extent that we can educate people about the value of using nontoxic tackle, we certainly want to do that and encourage them to think about what’s in their tackle box and try to do the right thing by loons and many other species.”
Lead tackle and ammunition both continue to be legal in Minnesota, despite efforts to ban their use in recent years.
Baratto said a test of the Cross Lake loon showed it did not have lead in its system, but it was still likely the victim of a human-caused impact. Treating loons in a wildlife rehabilitation setting is very difficult and adult birds are often not able to be successfully released, she said.
“They’re like the hardest bird to deal with. They have a lot of special needs and they are just feisty animals,” Baratto said. “They have to be really sick for us to get. I mean, they’re hard to catch. … They fight to the bitter end to just stay alive and stay wild. They’re just amazing birds, but they’re a lot of high maintenance work.”
Baratto, Mobeck and others emphasized it’s still worth the effort, in their view - but people should leave it to the professionals.
“Don’t go out on the ice,” Baratto said. “Nothing is worth your safety. I don’t care if it’s a loon or an eagle or a duck. You do not do that. Leave it to the experts.”
Another common loon currently floating in the Crow Wing chain of lakes near Nevis captured global attention but attempts to rescue that bird have thus far failed. And a third loon recently captured near Cambridge was transported to Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville, where it met the same demise as the Cross Lake loon.
In that case, the bird suffered from necrosis in its feet from an injury that could not be reversed, said Tami Vogel, communications director for the Roseville center. Stress to the bird also prompted a flare-up of aspergillosis, a lung infection caused by a common fungus of which waterfowl are often carriers.
The physical characteristics of loons may play a role in difficult wintertime exits. Unable to take flight from land, loons need approximately 100 feet of water runway space to become aloft. Some theorized a warmer-than-usual autumn coupled with a sudden cold snap might have contributed to juvenile loons - which typically leave the region later than their adult counterparts - becoming trapped as ice closed in around them.
Baratto and Vogel both stated, however, there’s almost always other reasons for delays to migration. The issue is a perennial one and cuts across multiple species of waterfowl. Loons tend to get the most attention, but Baratto said each year they also receive reports and intakes of geese, swans and others. Vogel said the Roseville center currently is working with between 30 and 40 people to capture various waterfowl.
“People don’t realize they’re hurt until they don’t leave, unless they see a wing dangling,” Vogel said. “They just don’t realize it, because the birds are moving around on water and they look fine.”
Vogel said it’s an unfortunate truth that waterfowl left behind when most of their species migrate southward typically suffered some kind of impact making it impossible for them to leave. In some cases, these are traumatic injuries. In others, lead poisoning to which waterfowl is particularly susceptible hampers the animals to the point they no longer function as normal and eventually die.
“Something physically prevented those birds from flying south when they should have,” Vogel said. “And then the question is, is that a physical hindrance? Is that a permanent disability, in which case the loon would have to be euthanized? Or is it something that can be repaired and then the loon can go through rehab treatment and be released?
“Until you have a bird in your hands and can do a physical exam on it, you don’t know if it’s just a feather condition or if there’s a fracture that has healed inappropriately. You don’t know if it’s just emaciated and needs care for some reason.”
Chelsey Perkins, Brainerd Dispatch community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .