CROSBY-If you asked Jon Wefald about his favorite subject, the more he talks about it, the more it sounds like some quasi-dive bomber jet, armed to the nines like a Roman gladiator, an avatar with the presence and voice of some era long lost to time.
Wefald was, of course, speaking of the common loon, the state bird and an animal with a special place in the annals and times of lake country Minnesota. Since stepping down as president of Kansas State University and (mostly) leaving public life to settle down by Bay Lake, Wefald has emerged as one of the most prominent advocates of loons and their conservation.
If Wefald isn't one of the most well-read experts on loons, he's definitely one of the most passionate and poetic proponents for the iconic avian with its sleek barrel body, plumage of black and white striations, and a call that sounds "unlike anything you've ever heard before," as he's apt to say, typically brimming with emotion.
Flanked by area figures-friends including former state Rep. Steve Wenzel and retired Congressman Rick Nolan-Wefald gave an informative presentation Tuesday, June 11, at Crosby's Heartwood Senior Living Community that verged more on an impassioned speech.
Only 22,000 of the birds exist in the continental United States-12,000 of them, the largest population, Wefald noted, in Minnesota's dense concentration of lakes and ponds the bird favors. While loons are the undisputed "masters of the lake"-fearlessly willing to take on everything from ducks and geese, to eagles and coyotes -Wefald told the audience they face a host of existential threats, both foreign and domestic.
In recent years, thousands of loons have been killed by a rampant form of botulism carried by zebra mussels, Wefald said. Nests are subject to constant attacks by eagles. And even if the eggs survive, they may not hatch-victims of pollution just like their parents, he noted, who typically spend at least two or three years in the Gulf of Mexico where the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill is wreaking havoc to the present day.
And yet, the common loon isn't on any endangered species or special protections list, Wefald decried. It barely garners the bare minimum in funding and the Department of Natural Resources-which Wefald criticized in unflinching terms-has allocated less, not more resources to loon conservation in recent years in his estimation. In terms of Deepwater Horizon, Wefald contended the agency has bungled and stalled efforts to determine how much damage has been done to Minnesota's loon population.
This, for a species experts are predicting will be wiped out between 2080 and 2100.
"They've shown they don't have the vision or the leadership for Minnesota's loon population," Wefald said of the DNR.
After the presentation, Wefald mingled with members of the audience of roughly 60 and answered a number of questions on the common loon, their lifespans, diet, breeding and migratory cycles, preferred habitats and other aspects of their ecology.
Hope on the (Deepwater) horizon?
Wefald did offer hope-pointing to the National Loon Center project in Crosslake that looks to potentially draw thousands of eyes and ears to common loon conservation. During this budget session, state lawmakers announced the project was awarded a Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources $4 million grant to bankroll it forward.
While $4 million is a great start, Wefald noted, there remains $6 million to be accounted for the project to reach fruition. He only half-jokingly asked if there were any wealthy patrons in the audience who could foot the bill, but pointed to restitution from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill-the extent of damage, culpability and compensation is still being hashed out in federal court-as a potential means to bridge the gap.
Plans call for a 15,000-square-foot facility to be constructed, housing the Freshwater Institute, Crosslake Chamber of Commerce offices, interactive exhibits and multipurpose rooms for the community. Piers will expand beyond the building into the bay, offering viewing and education opportunities. In addition, visitors will be able to take bike rides and collect water samples for testing back at the center.
The center is intended to restore and protect loon habitats, promote and enhance outdoor recreation, and be a leader in research and education related to migratory wildlife, a news release stated. Once completed, the center would use funds from gift and admission sales, educational programming and donations to support ongoing operations.
It has been lauded by supporters as bearing the potential to draw 40,000 to 70,000 or more people to the Brainerd lakes area annually, based on comparisons to other similar facilities already active throughout the state.
About the common loon
Minnesota's state bird:
- Lives to about 20 to 25 years of age.
- Eats about 2 pounds of fish a day-of which, perch is its personal favorite.
- Has been documented killing ducks and geese from beneath the water, like U-boats.
- Spends upwards of 95% of its time in the water. Between its barrel body, small wings and backward facing legs, the common loon is ill-suited to move on land, typically scooting around nests and that's about it.
- Has to maintain speeds of 60 mph or more to compensate for its oddly proportioned body during flight. During take off-and loons do, indeed, take off like planes-common loons need about 100 yards or a football field's worth of open water to generate enough thrust. On a still day, that number jumps to about 150 yards or a football field and a half.
- Share parenting duties between both females and males, including piggybacking their fluffy youngsters as they cruise around their domain.
- Hatch their young during this time of year-early to mid-June-in tiny clutches of eggs typically numbering two or three.
- Features four calls: a long call, like a mournful wolf, which the bird uses to attract potential mates; a warbling "hysterical soprano laugh" to warn others of danger; a repetitive yodel only by males to contest territories; or an abrupt hoot to locate themselves and others on the lake.