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Loon study keynotes VLA annual meeting,15329

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 8/14/19

LAKE VERMILION— Some area lake associations may soon be deploying more loon nesting platforms as part of a $7.5 million BP oil spill settlement approved last fall. Longtime loon researcher Kevin …

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Loon study keynotes VLA annual meeting,15329


LAKE VERMILION— Some area lake associations may soon be deploying more loon nesting platforms as part of a $7.5 million BP oil spill settlement approved last fall. Longtime loon researcher Kevin Kenow discussed that and much more about loons as part of his keynote talk to the 51st annual meeting of the Vermilion Lake Association on Aug. 10.

According to Kenow, the massive 2010 oil spill directly killed as many as 910 loons, although many more were likely affected in some way through various levels of contamination. In total, the spill released 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico along with about 2.1 million gallons of chemical dispersants used to break up the oil.

A portion of a multi-billion financial settlement stemming from the spill has been earmarked for restoration efforts for some of the estimated 93 different bird species that were affected by the massive contamination left behind. Some of those funds will be distributed to lake associations and other entities in Minnesota to help fund acquisition of critical loon nesting habitat as well as for the purchase, installation, and maintenance of loon nesting platforms.

Kenow said the platforms offer a number of advantages for loons, because they’re easy to access, they tend to discourage land-based predators, and can rise and fall with changing water levels. “The objective is to reduce adult mortality and increase nesting success,” said Kenow.

While Lake Vermilion has no shortage of nesting habitat for loons, two of three loon platforms deployed by the lake association this year were ultimately used by loons for nesting, according to VLA President Terry Grosshauser, so it appears that loons do recognize the advantages of the floating platforms.

Kenow also discussed his longstanding studies on loon behavior and migration patterns. Kenow, who grew up in Minneapolis and became fascinated with loons as a child during trips to northern Minnesota, recently retired as a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey— but he continues to conduct loon research for the USGS under temporary contracts. He began his work as part of an effort to better understand loon mortality resulting from avian botulism in the Great Lakes. As part of that effort, he began using a variety of transmitting and geo-tracking devices in loons to better understand their movements, and that work ultimately helped the Minnesota DNR provide a documentary link between the state’s summer loon population and the Gulf of Mexico.

Kenow noted that loons face a large number of hazards in the wild, from predators like bald eagles, to parasites, to lead poisoning and entanglement from abandoned fishing tackle. Kenow’s work demonstrated that mortality among juvenile loons can be quite high, as most young birds tracked by his study died within their first two years, before every returning to Minnesota. Despite the challenges that loons face, he said the population in Minnesota remains remarkably stable, with a statewide population estimated at between 12,000-13,000 birds.

That’s about a third of the total common loon population in the United States, he said. Alaska is the summer home to about 13,500 loons, while the remainder of the birds are found in a handful of other northern tier states, including Maine, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

The vast majority of common loons spend their summers in Canada.

Kenow gave his presentation after the conclusion of the business portion of the lake association’s annual meeting, held this year in the gymnasium of the Tower-Soudan Elementary School. Grosshauser gave an update on several topics of interest to members, including that no new invasive species had been detected on Lake Vermilion, which is a marked contrast to some of the state’s other largest and most popular lakes, which have seen infestations of both zebra mussels and starry stonewort in the past year. Zebra mussels were also reported as recently as last week in the Rochleau Pit in Virginia. Grosshauser credited the VLA’s aquatic invasive species efforts, which he called “second-to-none in the state” for helping to forestall infestations in the lake. He noted that the club’s volunteers had inspected 18,750 boats last year, including at both public and private launches on the lake. Grosshauser said the club is currently analyzing traffic patterns at the various launches in order to boost the efficiency of the inspection effort.

Claire Zweig reported on the annual loon count, noting that total loon numbers were down by 40 this year, while the chick count was actually slightly above the ten-year average. Grosshauser reported on the cormorant count, which appears to be down again on Potato Island, with a total count of 353. He said a growing number of herring gulls on the island appear to be keeping the cormorants in check.

The club recognized the efforts of Howard Ankrum and Rob Joki, two longtime board members who stepped down this year. The assembled members voted to add five new members to the board, including Mary McNellis, Gary Haugen, and John Yocum, who joined the board in late 2018, and Lori Ptak and Jim Graham, who joined last month. All five new members needed approval from the annual meeting. Members also approved the re-appointment of board members Dwight Warkentin, Wayne Souja, and Jeff Lovgren.

In addition, the membership voted to expand the association’s board of directors from 15 to 18 members. Those appointments will be added at a later date.


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As a wildlife photographer and Lake Vermilion property owner, I've studied and photographed loons for decades. I've observed nesting loons and loon chicks from birth to the seasons end maturity as well as mature but chick-less adults.. The most significant threat I've observed are people! In one instance a nesting loon on a very small rock outcrop had its egg displaced by a speeding boat whose wake flooded the nest which often is but a couple inches above the spring. early summer high water mark. within a couple minutes a gull tried to eat the egg but barely got anything other than some shell coated loon embryo.

In the bay where my cabin is located I've seen out of control speeding boats, towing skiers tubes and often in dribbling evening light, not yielding to loons and this year which I'm certain resulted in one of two chicks killed. The following morning I circled my bay in my canoe and only one chick remained. The following weeks proved that there would only be one survivor.

In the 40 years I've spent on Lake Vermilion, I've only seen law enforcement presense a couple times! Virtually no enforcement at all, not now nor in many decades. The lake is often a demolition derby of boaters with no knowledge of boating rules nor even an ounce of common sense. Not yielding properly to on coming boats, crossing dangerously close to other boats, These reckless and irrisponsible actions to boats to people clearly shows why loons would not be a concern for them. Even if a Sheriff's boat just slowly navigated the lake from one end to the other on a regular basis I think it would greatly improve the actions of many boaters and possibly help the loons.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019