Events

Bay Lakers love our loons

The sight and sound of loons strengthen our affection for beautiful Bay Lake. Their eerie calls enhance our lake experience and remind us that as humans we’re not alone on the lake. 

If you have a new interest in loons, a perfect introduction is to learn about loon calls and loon migration. Then learn how as stewards of Bay Lake, we can make life easier for our wild bird pals.

Loon Counts: 2023 and 2024

Loon Counters found 29 adults and two chicks on August 7, 2023. Read more

Loon Counters will once again be counting loons in early July 2024. Watch for info in the Bay Lake Blast.

Loon families wanted: New loon nesting platforms

Bay Lake volunteers built artificial loon platforms in the summer of 2023 and they’re ready to launch at various points in the lake Spring 2024. Because loons return so early, it’s best to place the platforms on the day of ice-out. The goal is that loons will find the platforms and use them to have a better chance of raising healthy chicks who are ready to migrate south in the fall. 

Learn more about loon platforms

Loon Basics

Hearing the various loon calls add to the unique atmosphere of being on Bay Lake. In the quiet of the morning and evening and being awakened by a loon call in the middle of the night is magical. But what are the loons saying?

Tremolo: this is the iconic “loony” sound, compared to a crazy human laugh. Loons use this call when feeling threatened or requesting clearance for landing.

Wail: loons use this to locate one another, like a loony game of Marco Polo. It rises and falls in pitch and has been compared to the howl of a wolf.

Yodel: used only by males, the yodel is a territorial or warning call. In the spring, yodels are heard from all parts of the lake, as newly returned males establish their territories. Sometimes, the yodel is accompanied by a “penguin dance” when the loon rises out of the water and flaps its wings to try to avert a perceived threat.

Hoot: a short single syllable, used by loons to greet one another

Cooing: a sound made by courting loons and by parents and chicks. It’s a low and understated coo, the least dramatic of all the loon calls.

Listen to various loon calls and read more about them »

Watch a VOX video about how often Hollywood movies include loon calls – even in places where loons would never be found. Watch the video here »

Loon migration is fascinating – they are the ultimate snowbirds, spending summers in the North and winters in the Gulf of Mexico.

Unlike human snowbirds, the loons’ spring return is closely tied to the date when winter ice is gone from lakes. In fact, loons in the Bay Lake area return to the region in early spring and wait near the Mississippi River until their chosen lakes are open. While waiting, Bay Lake loons make reconnaissance missions, to check to see if the ice is gone. When the ice finally departs, the loons arrive for the season on Bay Lake.

Loons build nests alongside water, as they do not walk well on land. Generally, the female lays two eggs on two separate days during the month of May. The eggs are olive in color with black spots and both parents sit on the nest to keep the eggs warm and safe. At this stage, parents keep a watchful eye as their eggs are a tasty snack for eagles, northern pike and raccoons.

After 27-30 days, loon eggs will hatch and chicks are able to walk on land at first, something their parents cannot do. Loon nests with newly hatched chicks in late June or early July are especially vulnerable to disruption. Since this occurs during the busy Independence Day holiday, humans should take care to avoid causing stress to the loons at this time. Be cautious about getting too close to loons with chicks, as the parents cannot dive underwater to safety with the chicks on their backs. Use binoculars to watch for loon chicks riding on their parents’ backs as they swim around the lake.

Loon laying egg caught on LoonCam

Watch the video here

Watch a female loon as she lays eggs and as the two parents switch off incubating them via LoonCam footage

Watch the video here

Loon chicks learn to dive and catch fish to gain their independence. Chicks are full grown at 12 weeks and weigh around 7-8 pounds. Learning to dive is key to a loon’s ability to feed itself. Loons can dive as deep as 250 feet and stay under water for as long as five minutes. This is why we see a loon dive and “disappear” and resurface far away from the place we spotted them. Loons have solid bones and are heavy enough to easily dive to the bottom of the lake. There, they pick up small pebbles which help digest their food. Sadly, they may also pick up lead sinkers that will cause a slow, painful death by lead poisoning.

Read about MN DNR’s Get the Lead Out campaign

Yes, loons will fight one another for prime nesting habitat. According to the National Loon Center (NLC), between ages five and seven years old, they often must evict an older individual of the same sex to gain access to that loon’s nesting area. 

Tracking tagged loons, a loon study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has drawn interesting conclusions about migration patterns and territorial fights between loons. Among those conclusions:

“Extensive banding and observation of marked loons in northern Wisconsin has shown that loons first return to the breeding grounds at age 2-5 years, with males tending to return nearer to their natal territory than females. Both sexes tend to wander and use many different lakes as “floaters” for 2 to 3 years before settling. Males and females both show a striking age-dependent pattern in the means they use to gain a territory: when 4-5 years old, they usually settle in a vacant territory with a mate and thus found a new territory. If they have not acquired a territory by 6-8 years of age, however, they usually attempt to seize a territory from an established owner after a violent and prolonged territorial battle. Such battles can be dangerous. In fact, about one-third of all territorial takeovers among males result in the death of the displaced male owner.”

Read about the Common Loon Migration study 

Watch a territorial fight between two loons 

 

Fall Migration: Where do they go?

Loon gatherings are more common in late summer as it’s the time when loons teach their young to fly and feed themselves. According to DNR loon experts, some loons begin to acquire their winter coloring at this time, particularly if they’ve completed parenting duties for the year. They change from distinctive black and white plumage to gray feathers. 

As Bay Lakers prepare to store their boats and docks for the season, loons are also getting ready for winter. In the fall, male loons are the first to depart for winter homes, followed by the females. Before heading south, the adults gather on Lake Mille Lacs before they leave Minnesota. They stop on Lake Michigan, presumably to “refuel”, on their way to the Gulf of Mexico. By the end of November, loons leave Lake Michigan and fly to the Florida coast. 

Data from tagged loons indicates that their total journey is 1,170 to1,570 miles. During this journey, loons fly at 90-100 MPH and at elevations of 3,000 to 5,000 feet. In fact, flying at speeds under 60 MPH can cause them to fall. Researchers tracked one loon’s flight of 670 miles in a single 24-hour period.

Last to migrate south are the newly hatched young who remain behind to practice their flying technique and gain strength by eating lots of fish. A loon requires 1.5 football fields of open water to take off, so they must depart before the lake ices over.

The USGS Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center has tagged loons and followed their migration patterns.

Read their findings 

 

ANIMATED MIGRATION MAP

Watch loon migration that shows the path that loons take from Minnesota to the Gulf.

USGS video on Unravelling Mysteries of the Common Loon

Common Loon Documentary 

Brainerd Dispatch article about loon migration 

Short answer: the most recent loon count found 29 loons on August 7, 2023, plus 2 chicks. 

Of the 22,000 loons in the lower 48 states, Minnesota is fortunate to have about 12,000 of them. Compare this number to 4,000 loons in Wisconsin and Maine, and to New Hampshire, which has approximately 400 resident loons in the summer months. The loon is so revered that it’s the state bird of Minnesota and New Hampshire. In32 Canada, it is the provincial bird of Ontario and is pictured on the one-dollar bill. 

Bay Lake is uniquely attractive to loons, because of its shape and size and its fish population. The irregular shoreline that gave the lake its native name of Sissebegama (Ojibwe meaning lake of Many Arms) also welcomes loons looking for a good nesting site. The lake’s many bays and inlets provide shelter for loons to nest and incubate chicks. Protection is needed – not only from waves and human interference – but from predators like raccoons, bald eagles, northern pike and foxes looking for a loon snack. 

The lake’s fish population also attracts loons: Bay Lake’s 2,330 acres of water harbor a healthy population of the loon’s favorite fish: the cisco or tullibee. This high-calorie fish is especially important for loons before migration when they need to store up energy for their long journey. 

Since 1987, Bay Lake has participated in a volunteer loon count that permits the state DNR to maintain information about loon population on various lakes. Under this DNR program, volunteers conduct loon counts on certain lakes and submit those numbers to the DNR.

View a summary of the status of loons statewide from the 2022 DNR report on the loon monitoring program

From 2012 to 2018, long-time Bay Lakers Jon and RuthAnn Wefald submitted loon counts. They often counted at several different points during the summer months. Jon and RuthAnn went out on pontoon rides and recorded all the loons and chicks they saw and reported their findings to the DNR and to the BLIA Board. They reported anywhere from 9 to 38 loons, including as many as five chicks.

Read the Wefald loon report from 2012

Jon Wefald was an active loon watcher and loon advocate who often spoke at the BLIA annual meeting. You can read a transcript of his excellent speech delivered in 2017.

The Most Magical Bird in the World: the Common Loon

Until his death in 2022, Jon Wefald enjoyed spreading the word about loons and their vulnerability. The Brainerd Dispatch ran a story about him as a Loon Advocate in 2019. Bay Lakers are grateful for the many years that the Wefald family devoted to monitoring and advocating for our loon friends. 

Read the article

2023 Bay Lake Loon Count

In August 2023, Allison Wolf volunteered to become the Loon Liaison for Bay Lake to address a gap in loon counting between 2018 and 2023. The goal was to work with DNR to revive the Bay Lake loon counts and determine whether the loon population had changed. Allison concluded that the size of Bay Lake justified a larger team to conduct the loon survey.

Because so many people are interested in loons, it was easy to recruit loon counters. With maps and binoculars in hand, about 20 Bay Lakers ventured out on August 7, 2023. The group spent two hours on the lake conducting a thorough count and marking their findings on lake maps. BLIA Vice President Amy Grady hosted a lunch for volunteers to compare notes on findings. 

A benefit of the larger group was the multiple eyes on the lake at the same time, which helped to avoid double-counting. Final result: a total of 29 loons on the lake, plus 2 chicks. This aligned with the earlier counts.

29 adults and two chicks is a healthy count for a 2,330 acres lake. We are fortunate that so many loons want to call Bay Lake home. However, there are signs of a problem: not enough healthy loon chicks. According to scientists at the DNR, Bay Lake should be producing more healthy chicks. This is a problem in other lakes as well, as indicated in a blog post.

Read “Where are all the chicks?”

Loon pairs seem to be successfully nesting on Bay Lake but their chicks do not always survive to the end of summer. Possible reasons for this relatively low reproductive success are:

  • Predation of eggs and chicks by raccoons, eagles and northern pike
  • Interference by humans at key breeding and nesting times
  • Changes in water levels and flooding, a consequence of climate change and boats with bigger wakes
  • Water quality and clarity issues

We have anecdotal evidence that points to predation, reported by the staff of the Northern Pines Mental Health Center on Church Island. Deb Watson often pilots the pontoon taking folks to and from the island reported what she saw near the mainland dock.

Losing Loon Eggs to Eagles 

“In the summer of 2023, I heard the loons sounding in distress when I arrived at the mainland parking lot. Upon getting to the island, on the boat, I inadvertently startled an eagle perched on the loon nest, leading to the loss of the egg. The previous year, a visible egg remained in the nest early in the summer, but fourth of July boat traffic waves erased it. 

I observe the nest daily, given its proximity to our mainland dock. It serves as a valuable educational experience for island visitors, offering insights into the lives of the loons. Loon and invasive species education is regularly included in our programming on the island and increasing in 2024. We appreciate the collaboration with the Bay Lake Loon committee and the opportunity to add the loon nesting platforms when the ice goes out in the spring. We are hopeful that the new nesting platforms will help the loon chicks to survive long enough to migrate in the fall and later return to nest on Bay Lake.” 

Deb Watson, Program Director, Northern Pine Mental Health Center

Since the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Minnesota has been active in raising concerns about the effect of oil on loons who spend winters in the area. Carrol Henderson, retired non-game wildlife supervisor at the Minnesota DNR, paved way for the state to receive funds in any pay-out related to the oil spill. He was successful in 2018 and $7,520,000 was paid to fund the Restoration of Common Loons in Minnesota project. These funds have been allocated to three Minnesota state agency programs: habitat acquisition and artificial loon platforms through the DNR and Pollution Control Agency (PCA) program called “Get the Lead Out”.

Learn more about the Restoration of Common Loons in Minnesota project

Read Star Tribune article Minnesota loons could benefit from BP oil spill money

BLIA filed its Loon-friendly Lake Management Plan with the DNR in April 2023. By doing so, BLIA joined the Loon Protection Program initiated by DNR staff when they successfully received funding from the compensation related to the BP oil spill.

View the current Loon-friendly Lake Management Plan

For the first time, artificial loon platforms will be installed around Bay Lake, in Spring 2024. The platforms will hopefully protect nesting loons from being washed away by large wakes as well as from predators such as eagles and raccoons. 

Participation in the artificial loon platform project required the assent of the DNR. For this reason, DNR staff Rob Robasco and Jayden Jesch visited Bay Lake in late summer of 2023. During a tour of the lake, the staff identified a number of possible locations for the platforms. While DNR staff emphasize that there is no guarantee that the loons will choose to nest on the artificial loon platforms, they concluded that it was a worthwhile effort to try the platforms on Bay Lake. 

The Loon Protection Program will provide reimbursement for the cost of the materials needed for the loon platforms. Volunteers will be placing the platforms at optimal locations very early in the spring, ideally on the actual day that the ice is completely gone from the lake. Those interested in helping are invited to contact Amy Grady at 952-818-4148. Platforms were built by a team of volunteers. 

Much of the early work in Minnesota on loon platforms was done by a citizens group working to protect the loons of Big Mantrap Lake. A January-February 2024 Lake Country Journal magazine article detailed the work of this devoted group. See more here

Did you know that 25% of adult loon deaths are caused by lead fishing tackle? In New Hampshire, research shows that number may be as high as 41% of loon deaths. 

Check out this video on Loons and Lead made by the National Loon Center in Crosslake, MN

A single lead sinker can easily poison a loon. And it is not uncommon for loons to ingest lead sinkers and other lost fishing tackle, since loons must forage on the lake bottom for pebbles to assist in their digestion. Like other birds without teeth, loons rely on pea-sized pebbles to help them break down their food. A loon may also swallow a fishing jig, mistaking it for a minnow, 

Once a loon swallows a lead sinker or jig, the loon begins to die a slow and painful death as the lead poisons its nervous system. Only medical attention can stop this process. 

To help address the serious threat of lead to our loons, Bay Lake is part of the Get the Lead Out program of the state Pollution Control Agency, which aims to speed up the transition away from lead fishing tackle. This project reimburses anglers and bait shops for the cost of new lead-free tackle.

Learn more about the program 

In addition to switching to non-lead tackle, you can keep an eye out for loons suffering from lead poisoning. How will you know? Lead poisoning can cause a loon to fly poorly, have crash landings or stagger onto the ground. The loon may begin to gasp, tremble and droop its wings as the lead is carried through its bloodstream. If you see a loon acting strangely, consider that it might be experiencing lead poisoning.
Refer to Help A Loon resources

 

GET THE LEAD OUT! SAVE A LOON! 

Most fishing tackle contains lead, though newer tackle often substitutes titanium. Lead poisons loons, accounting for a quarter of adult loon deaths. 

First, test to see whether your tackle has lead: does it make a gray mark on paper? Is it soft enough to mold and bend in your hands? (Wash your hands because lead is not good for you either.) If it’s lead, head to your bait shop for new lead-free tackle. If they don’t carry it there, please request they order it.

For more information, head to the PCA page for a list of places to buy lead-free gear

Loons need clean water 

Loons feed themselves by fishing underwater, so clear water is absolutely necessary. If the water is too murky, loons cannot see the fish. Researchers believe that loons look for a new lake with greater water clarity if the lake they are nesting in has cloudy water.

Loons are living in the water and eating the fish that also live there. As a result, they are in contact with everything that we add to the lake water. From fertilizer to oil leaking from an engine to mercury coming through the air from faraway powerplants, pollution is a reality. How can we do our part to reduce these contaminants? 

  • On your shoreline, plant a buffer strip of perennial native vegetation helps to protect the lake from erosion and is beautiful as well. BLIA provides plants for this purpose every May, which makes it easy to do this. The Natural Shoreline Partnership report concluded that: “Mowed shorelines allow 7 to 9 times more pollutants to enter the lake than a more naturally vegetated shoreline.”

  • Avoid chemical fertilizers, which cause algae and invasives to grow faster in the lake. Since lake water contains nitrogen, many have found that watering lawns and gardens with lake water is an easy way to provide nutrients for growing plants. 

  • Make sure your septic system is operating properly.
    U of M extension service tells you how 

Minnesotans love their lakes, but a 2022 article in the Lake Country Journal asked the question: are we loving our lakes to death? The article states:

“The 2022 Annual Report of the Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates (MLR) offers some sobering information. Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) are spreading, and new AIS are coming. Minnesota’s signature bird, the common loon, is dying from lead poisoning, from being strangled in discarded fishing tackle, and from nests lost when swamped by boat wakes. Fish populations decline despite stocking programs. Algae blooms increase everywhere and last longer. Half the state’s shoreline is undermined by development. Feed lots are growing as Minnesota now rivals Iowa in hog production, sending high concentrations of manure into ground and surface waters. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA) list of “impaired waters” – an index compiled every two years as required under the federal Clean Water Act – has jumped from 40 percent to 56 percent since 2018. There is real concern about the future.

“We have to make protecting water a priority. We’re at a tipping point, and we’re starting to lose lakes,” warns Jeff Forester, MLR Executive Director. “We have to protect water because we need water to live.” 

Read the full article

The Natural Shoreline Partnership 2023 report on Minnesota shoreline health also concluded that warning signs are on the horizon. 

Read the report 

Learn best practices for shoreland management 

 

Loons need shelter and protection

Loons require shelter to reproduce and peace and quiet to raise their chicks. While humans can help protect loons from predators with artificial loon platforms, humans themselves must remain aware. Boaters can harm loons by getting too close and even cause mortality if the loon cannot dive fast enough to escape a propeller. Anglers can help loons by keeping fishline and lead tackle out of the lake; each of these can end up being fatal to a loon. Those tangles of fishline? Don’t toss them overboard. And take advantage of the new lead-free tackle now widely available. 

 

How do boats affect loons? Can loons dive out of the way of a fast-moving motorboat? 

Boaters can cause the death of loons without being aware  since loons swim under the surface of the water. Give loons some room – experts advise boaters in motorized watercraft to stay about 200 feet away from loons.

While it’s tempting to try to get close to get a better look at a loon, doing this in a motorboat or jet ski can jeopardize their safety, especially chicks. While loons are good divers, they cannot dive quickly enough to avoid the propeller of a boat quickly approaching. And loon chicks are like little corks bobbing back to the surface quickly.

Read the article “More boaters mean more threats to loons on Minn. Lakes”

 

Can waves or big wakes flood a loon nest, causing the nest to be lost? 

Loon nests can be flooded when lake levels change. This can happen when large waves swamp the loon nest, which loons build right on the water’s edge, not really on the land itself. 

Recent increases in the number of wake-surfing boats have been shown to cause larger wakes. When this issue was studied, researchers at the University of Minnesota concluded that wake boats need to be >500 feet from shore to have wakes similar to non-wake boats, as found by the Saint Anthony Falls researchers at the U of M. In the ‘wake’ of that study, Lake Minnetonka now requires boats to stay at least 300 feet from shorelines. This helps to protect shorelines from erosion but will also help the loons on that lake. 

The U of M continues to study the impact of larger wakes.

Read about the wake boat study

Resources

Where can I find out more about loons in Minnesota?

DNR: Minnesota Loon Restoration Program

https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/eco/nongame/minnesota-loon-restoration-project.html 

DNR staff

Jayden Jesch, Loon Restoration Coordinator jayden.jesch@state.mn.us 

Read DNR Loon facts

University of Minnesota 

Loon calls and migration

Loon Preservation Committee

loon.org 

This New Hampshire organization has done impressive work to study and protect loons. Though the state has far fewer loons than Minnesota, the affection felt for them is just as strong.

Bay Lake Loon Liaison to the DNR

Alison Wolf
612-750-5449
wolfwilhel@msn.com

Questions about loons on Bay Lake? Contact Allison, Bay Lake’s Loon Liaison to the Minnesota DNR.

The National Loon Center 

nationallooncenter.org
Jon Mobeck, Executive Director
jon@nationallooncenter.org 

Crosslake is home to the new National Loon Center due to open in 2025. This interactive, educational center for research and information about our favorite aquatic bird. 

Watch a video about the Center 

The Loon Project loonproject.org This is a scientific research effort in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The goal is to learn more about loons and the reasons for their population declines. This group has documented decreased loon numbers in both Wisconsin and Minnesota and is searching for reasons and solutions.

The Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation 

Adkloon.org

This group works to protect and study loons is the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation. Based in Saranac Lake, New York, they host a series of educational events called “Loon Zooms”. 

LOON 911

Medical help, rescue assistance

If you see a loon in distress, there are resources offering advice and help.

Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, Garrison

320-692-4180
wildandfree.org  

If you see a loon that seems to have lead poisoning or be injured, consider a call to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Garrison. The Garrison facility accepts migratory birds and other wildlife, but not large game and wolves. 

 

Minnesota Loon Rescue Network

mnlakesandrivers.org/minnesota-loon-rescue-network

This Minnesota Lakes and Rivers program provides information about rescuing loons. 

 

Loon Rescue

715-966-5415, 715-453-4916
Facebook page 

This Wisconsin-based group has been very active in saving loons that are in distress from lead and  other causes. They have an active Facebook presence, on which they report on their adventures in rescuing loons at all times of the year.

Minnesota DNR 

Sick, injured, or orphaned wildlife 

Learn what to do and whom to contact.

Eliminating lead sinkers and jigs

Loons swallow pea-sized pebbles on the bottom of lakes to aid in digestion. It’s easy for them to confuse a lead sinker with a small pebble or a fishing jig for a minnow. When a loon ingests a lead sinker or jig, dangerous amounts of lead enter the bird’s system, slowly poisoning it.

Please help us protect our loon population by learning about the dangers of lead tackle and supporting lead-free tackle retailers.

Get the Lead Out

Useful Links