Michigan’s Amazing Animals: Common Loon

by Patrick Bevier

Common loons are one of the most mysterious animals we have in Michigan. To unravel some of the mystery, here are some fascinating, fabulous, and funny facts about those beautiful, bewitching, and boisterous birds:

The Name Game: The scientific name of the common loon is Gavia immer. Gavia is a Latin term meaning ‘seabird’ and immer is from the Latin “immerses” which translates to ‘submerged’. Another moniker for these birds is Great Northern Diver, which acknowledges their amazing underwater skills. There are five species of Gavia worldwide, all living above the equator, with the common loon being by far the most frequent inhabitant of the Mitten State. A close relative, the red-throated loon, makes an occasional appearance in our area and can be identified by its burnt orange hued triangular throat patch, and small, narrow head.

Great Divers Indeed: When pursuing fish, a common loon can dart down to 200 foot-depths! They torpedo through the water with powerful thrusts of webbed feet and have solid bones which make them less buoyant than hollow-boned ducks. This skeleton contributes to common loons being the heaviest of the Gavia species as they may tip the scales at over 13 pounds. Further, loons can spend an amazing eight minutes underwater, and rarely come to the surface without an aquatic animal in their beak.

Photo by Deb Traxinger.

Not So Ducky: Common loons resemble ducks in shape and behavior except for a very pointed bill that helps them to spear their prey and feet located further back on the body. They sport mostly black plumage with a grid-like pattern of white spots across the wings, a thick black necklace, smooth head, small ruby colored eyes, and a white underbelly. There is no sexual dimorphism as male and female loons look similar to one another except males are sometimes slightly larger. The common loon’s feathers change dramatically between the breeding and non-breeding seasons. As a matter of fact, you probably wouldn’t recognize the understated non-breeding version with its drab brown body and white face and neck.

Still Not Too Common: Although population numbers appear to be rising slightly, common loons still carry the conservation status of threatened in the Great Lakes State. Threatened species are defined as those that may become endangered if conservation efforts are not increased. Indeed, in Michigan it is estimated that we have only 500-700 nesting pairs of loons. Please do not disturb them by getting too close, especially when they are nesting.

Loon Rangers: To monitor populations, Michigan has an ongoing Natural Features Study on these birds and specially assigned citizens are known as Loon Rangers! Can I get a, “High-Ho-Silver, Away!” for them?

Loquacious Loons: Loons emit some of the most distinctive and recognizable calls of all North American wildlife, and feature a variety of vocalizations. In fact, they produce four distinct calls (wail, yodel, hoot, and tremolo). The iconic wail is associated most with loons, and is a prolonged, haunting bellow that is used to signal their whereabouts to faraway mates. The yodel is an undulating shriek uttered by males only and means, “stay out of my territory!”. The hoot is used to occasionally signal nearby family members. Finally, the tremolo, is a cackling sound uttered when they feel threatened.

Summer Love: Loons generally mate for life but will take another partner if one dies. In Michigan loons usually arrive in April and begin preparing their nest in May. Nests are constructed of contoured marsh vegetation in sheltered areas and the clutch size is one or two large brown eggs with black splotches. Males and females take turns incubating the eggs which hatch in 26-29 days. The adorable, fully-feathered, brownish gray puffballs begin swimming within hours of hatching.

Thanks for the Ride, Mom! One of the most unusual behaviors of common loons is that the chicks ride on their parents’ backs. Two reasons for this piggy-back behavior are that it keeps the chicks warm and decreases predation from underwater hunters like snapping turtles and northern pike, and terrestrial predators like mink and fox. During the first week after hatching a chick may spend up to 50% of its time getting chauffeured with a sharp decline of back-riding thereafter. However, we have observed chicks over half the size of the parent sneaking a lift if they can get away with it!

Photo by Joni Roberts.

Bye, Bye Baby: It’s quite ironic, however, that such nurturing parents often leave their chicks “in the dust” near the end of their first summer of existence. During September the loon parents fly off to separate parts of the country-usually the warmer areas of the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico-with nary a thought for what might happen to the now three-month old chicks. The good news is that the youngsters, who have grown like weeds and are now almost the size of the parents, instinctively know to fly for warmer climes as well.

Long-in-the-Tooth Loons: As bird species go loons live a relatively long life. Indeed, Michigan boasts the oldest known loon pair in the world! The couple, named “ABJ” and “Fe,” have nested in the U.P.’s Seney National Wildlife Refuge since 1997. Having been banded much earlier, the male, “ABJ,” is 34-years-old while “Fe,” the female, reaches a remarkable 35-years-old this summer! Close eyes are kept on this couple as each year Michigan conservationists celebrate their return. It’s estimated that this dynamic duo has produced up to 40 “Yooper” loon chicks over their lifetime!

Piscatorial Palette: Loons have a somewhat specialized diet including gobbling up crayfish and aquatic insects but definitely consume more fish than anything else. While teaching them how to hunt, parents feed the chicks for many weeks of their young lives.

Like a Drunken Sailor: Because their legs are further back than any other type of water bird, loons have a distinct disadvantage on land. They are incapable of walking upright and instead stagger and crawl on their bellies until they can reach water again. That explains why loons nest on vegetation very close to the water’s edge in case they have to make a quick getaway in the presence of predators. Therefore, Gavia species spend their entire lives paddling, fishing, and loving, in the water. Their weight, however, makes it difficult for them to take flight and the birds often have to frantically run on the water’s surface for up to 600 yards to accomplish that feat. Accordingly, you won’t find loons nesting in small bodies of water.

Flying Phenom’s: Once airborne, loons can fly up to 75 miles per hour and can amass hundreds of miles of flying distance without rest!

Ever-Changing Eyes: Interestingly, the commonloons’ eye color changes dramatically from a dull gray during winter to a piercing crimson in spring and summer. Ornithologists hypothesize that this may be for attracting mates or for better underwater vision in fresh water.

Looney Tunes: Although the popular cartoon borrowed their name for the series, a loon character never appeared. Instead, a rabbit, duck, pig, cat, parakeet, and even a bumbling hunter graced the screen with names like Bugs, Daffy, Porky, Sylvester, Tweety, and Elmer. The goal was to, of course, have the viewer, “laughing like a loon!”

Legendary Loon Literature: A delightful children’s book was written and illustrated by Michigan artists Kathy-jo Wargin and Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen, respectively. It’s titled, “The Legend of the Loon” with a theme of a grandmother’s love for her grandchildren. It was published by popular Michigan-based book creators Sleeping Bear Press (sleepingbearpress.com).

An Avian Accident: A funny story comes our way from our Canadian cousins up north. Seems that their beloved dollar coin that was first minted in 1986, and sports a loon picture on the tails-side, was never meant to be. The initial intent for these coins, affectionately known as “loonies,” was to have two voyagers in a canoe opposite Queen Elizabeth’s’ face. But the die for that design went missing at the last minute and the mint decided to slap on a picture of a loon instead. Today, many people – particularly hockey players – consider loonies to be good luck.

Those are some common loon characteristics about these not so common creatures. With good fortune you’ll encounter one or more this summer on the wonderful waters of Michigan!

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Why We Burn

Sanctuary stewards in safety gear stand over a patch of scorched ground at Butternut Creek Nature Sanctuary.

Seán Mullett, Sam Brodley, and Lance Rogalski pause for a moment while conducting a prescribed burn at Butternut Creek Nature Sanctuary.

April is traditionally the peak of burn season in the land stewardship world. You’ve probably noticed more controlled/prescribed burn photos filling up your social media feed; people dressed in yellow, flames and smoke over charred ground. But for as much of the media coverage as these burns get, you don’t often see the stories behind the need for them.

Controlled burns can take place for a number of reasons – to treat and manage invasive species like autumn olive, or in some prairie environments, to prevent trees and shrubs from encroaching and crowding out essential sun-loving wildflowers and prairie plants. Over the past month, MNA stewards conducted prescribed burns at several of its sanctuaries, including Butternut Creek Sanctuary in Berrien County, the goal of which was to maintain the open grassland features of the prairie fen. Prairie fens are critical habitat for a high number of imperiled and declining species including the federally endangered Mitchell’s Satyr, one of the rarest butterflies in the world; known only to exist in Midwestern fens that were created by the retreating glaciers. While the Mitchell’s Satyr has not been observed at this particular sanctuary for a number of years, maintaining healthy prairie fen communities like that found at Butternut Creek is essential to improving threatened, fen-dependent species across the state.

In an excerpt from MNA’s spring 2011 magazine, Conservation Director Andrew Bacon explains:

Historically, fire crept through the understory of the forest, but did not necessarily ignite the mid- or upper-levels of the canopy as observed in the intense wildfires of recent times. Prior to human settlement, fire prevented shade-tolerant trees from populating oak-hickory forests, oak barrens and open communities. Without fire, trees like red maple, American beech, basswood and elm survive in the understory and fill gaps in the forest canopy.

As gaps are filled, less sunlight reaches the forest floor, making it impossible for shade-intolerant species like oak and hickory to grow. Herbaceous prairie and savanna species also become shaded out as trees become established. Slowly, the entire species composition of natural communities changes, and many species of plants and animals must find food and habitat elsewhere.

Prescribed fires have had significant and measurable results, such as restoring and protecting the habitat of the federally-endangered Karner blue butterfly. Without active management to keep these critical habitats healthy, these species and other habitat specialists like them would be at greater risk of decline.

Fishing for plastic, algae threats and California’s drought policies: this week in environmental news

By Kary Askew Garcia, MNA Intern

A University of Michigan research scientist and her research assistant sift through debris from the water. Photo courtesy of Great Lakes Echo.

A University of Michigan research scientist and her research assistant sift through debris from the water. Photo courtesy of Great Lakes Echo.

Every Friday, MNA gathers news related to the environment from around the state and country. Here are a few highlights from what happened this week in environmental news:

Researchers troll for plastic on Great Lakes fishing boat (Great Lakes Echo): Captain David Brooks of the Nancy K boat headed out to Lake St. Clair in pursuit of catching bits of plastic in the water. His curiosity was piqued by the fact that a sweater he owned was made of plastic and bits of plastic washed down the drain when he cleaned it. His intention with the plastic hunt in the water was to find out how harmful these bits of plastic can really be to the environment.

Bracing for Lake Erie algae threats to drinking water (Great Lakes Echo): The 2011 all-time high record of the algae blooms in Lake Erie was followed up by a close second high in 2013. Scientists and government organizations are becoming more concerned about the dangers posed by the toxic algae crowding the lake. Researchers take a closer look at the water, algae and problems surrounding it.

California approves forceful steps amid drought (New York Times): State officials have moved forward with implementing harsh repercussions for over-using water. Citizens could be fined $500 per day for simply washing a car or watering a garden. Still, convincing urban residents of the seriousness of the drought has been a difficult task.

3-D images captured with help from a panda, California condor pair and a dugong,.

3-D images captured with help from a panda, California condor pair and a dugong,.

Animals live in 3-D, now scientists do, too (Conservation Magazine): Finding animals’ home ranges have been part of recent studies. These home ranges would help scientists study animals and their habitats and employing 3-D mechanisms has helped them to get a closer look at animal life.

Still poison: Lead bullets remain a big problem for birds (Conservation Magazine): The Bipartisan Sportsman Act of 2014 may have given different parties a chance to unite in support, but would have had other implications for birds during hunting season. The bill would have called for an exemption for lead ammunition and fishing tackle from “longstanding regulations.” Recent studies have shown a growing issue with lead poisoning leading to the death of birds.

 

ENDANGERED!

At MNA, our Mission is to protect special natural areas and the rare species that live there. The goals of our blog are to cover the latest environmental issues affecting these areas and provide information about the efforts of our volunteers. Our weekly “ENDANGERED!” column serves to inform you about the endangered plant and animal species found in and around these special natural areas, and how you can contribute to conservation efforts before it is too late.

Indiana Bat
By Brandon Grenier

While we do not often see bats, they play an active role in the environment. With an appetite for bugs such as mosquitoes, moths and other pests, bats help manage insect populations. They also aid in the pollination of plants and seed dispersal of fruits and nuts.

First listed as endangered in 1967, the Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis) is only found in the eastern United States and there are only about 400,000 individuals left in the world. It is believed that the population of bats is now less than half of what it was in 1967, according to 2009 estimates.


Physical Appearance:

The Indiana bat is incredibly light, weighing only seven-to-eight ounces, roughly the weight of two sugar packets. It has a wingspan of 9-to 11-inches and usually is about five inches long. It has dark, grayish brown fur, with pink undersides and a dark petagium (wing membrane). Its ears are short and rounded. While it can sometimes be difficult to tell it apart from its relative the little brown bat, the Indiana bat has tri-color hairs that make it easy to distinguish upon close inspection.

Preferred Habitat:
The Indiana bat has a very specific habitat, with 85 percent of the current population found in only seven caves. The largest caves support 20,000-50,000 bats. In Michigan at the northern end of their range, Indiana bats prefer savanna habitats with sun-exposed trees for maximum warmth. In the winter, bats hibernate in large caves in Kentucky, Indiana and Missouri. However, a relatively new hibernacula (a cave where bats hibernate for the winter) has been found in northern Michigan at the Tippy Dam spillway. Because of their hibernation habits, Indiana bats are incredibly vulnerable to human disturbances.

Throughout the past decade, there have been reported occurrences of the bat in Calhoun, Cass, Washtenaw, Van Buren and St. Joseph counties.

Life Cycle:
In the spring, Indiana bats leave their hibernacula, sometimes travelling hundreds of miles. In early fall, Indiana bats flock the entrance of caves or mines and mating takes place. Sperm is stored in the female’s body until the eggs are fertilized in the spring. One bat is born to each female in late June, and it can fly within one month. Indiana bats generally live to be 14 years old.

List Status:

As human activity increases in the areas where Indiana bats hibernate, their delicate habitat shrinks. The bats are protected federally and are listed as endangered in Michigan. Commercialization of caves, the logging of dead trees and the use of pesticides and contaminants contribute to the decline of this species.

The Indiana bat is also threatened by a disease called white nose syndrome. More than one million bats have died from it since its discovery in 2006 in New York. The name refers to a white ring of fungus found on the faces of infected bats.

The presence of white nose syndrome has been found in more than 25 different caves and mines so far, and a moratorium has been placed on caving activities in those areas. Fortunately, the disease has not yet been found in Michigan.

Protection Efforts:
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is collaborating with state, federal and local government officials as well as university researchers and bat conservation groups to develop a response plan to white nose syndrome that prevents the disease and minimizes its impact on the species.

Indiana bat’s habitat can be protected by protecting mature forests, leaving dead trees standing to promote habitat and refraining from using insecticides.

How You Can Help:
To help protect this rare species, abstain from demolition and land clearing such as canopy removal and clearing snags. Cutting down trees significantly reduces bats’ habitat. However, if you must remove trees, you can build a bat house. Bat houses mimic the space between a tree trunk and bark and provide warmth. To learn how to build your own bat house, click here.

MNA volunteers are currently working to protect this and other endangered species, and you can help too. Join our efforts as a volunteer removing invasive plants in the special natural areas where this species lives. Or, become a steward and take responsibility for planning efforts to maintain a specific MNA sanctuary. To find out how to get involved, visit our website.