Spring storms strand migrating loons in Wisconsin

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At least 50 loons have been rescued from farmers’ fields, parking lots and roadsides since Saturday in northern Wisconsin. What’s happening?

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Alex Crockford, Langlade County Agricultural Extension in central Wisconsin, found this grounded loon on May 3rd.

An ice storm in central Wisconsin last Thursday and Friday “encased loons in ice as they were migrating,” explained Marge Gibson, who runs the Raptor Education Group in Antigo, Wisc. “They fell like rocks from the sky.”

Gibson has rescued and released 51 stranded loons since Saturday, and said she has six more in rehabilitation. Here’s a video of a loon recovering in a bathtub.

Loons also tried to make emergency landings in areas that looked like open water, but in fact were hard surfaces that looked like water, like parking lots or fields with some standing puddles.

“They’re really desperate,” said Erica LeMoine, LoonWatch Program Coordinator at the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute in Ashland, Wisc. “They’re trying to get to a place where they can rest until they can get to the lake they want to get to.”

The problem, explains LeMoine, is that loons can’t take off from hard surfaces. Even in lakes and rivers, they need up to a quarter mile of open water to gain enough speed to fly. LeMoine says that leaves them prone to starvation and predation.

It doesn’t appear to be a problem in Minnesota. Phil Jenni, Executive Director of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota, said his organization has only taken in two loons this spring, and both have been released. He said most loons had already migrated through southern Minnesota before last week’s record snowfall reached Rochester, Red Wing and surrounding areas.

The late ice-out of many lakes across northern Wisconsin is also wreaking havoc with migrating loons. “Loons are crowding on to lakes in southern Wisconsin, on rivers around here, and little pieces of lakes that are open,” said Erica LeMoine, as the birds wait out the ice on their home lakes in Wisconsin, Canada and elsewhere. “It’s created a loon bottleneck,” she said.

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