Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Loons wintering in the Gulf


Common Loon
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
(Transcript from today's "For the Birds")

My Texas friend Ruskin Teeter sent me a message yesterday, quoting a friend in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, who emailed him after the oil hit:
"Well, (no pun intended) the oil is here. I am sick about it. I have been crying for about an hour now. Life in this area is changed forever. Hurricanes can be overcome. This is just too much. I am so glad that Mom passed 2 years ago because this would have killed her. Say your prayers for us, the gulf, the beaches, and the wildlife. This is devastating. Nothing you see on the TV can prepare you for this mess.

And nothing on the news—on television, the internet, the radio, or magazines and newspapers—can possibly prepare our loons for what they’ll experience after their long fall migration when they finally reach those familiar waters where they spent the first couple of years of their life. The moment they dive in, it will be too late.
Many of the books and papers I’ve read over the years said that loons from the Great Lakes region migrate east, to the Atlantic coast, and wend their way south along the coast through the winter. But more current research, based on extensive banding efforts by researchers at the BioDiversity Research Institute in Maine, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and George Mason University in California, as well as tracking via satellite transmitters, has brought a lot more precision to what we know. According to the Common Loon account in the Birds of North America Online, published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the American Ornithologists’ Union and updated just last month:
The loon populations of the Upper Great Lakes in Michigan and Wisconsin migrate along the southern Great Lakes and use an overland migration route to the Gulf of Mexico (Alabama east along the Florida coast) and e. Florida. Some individuals stage on lakes along the way and even over-winter in larger reservoirs in Tennessee and Alabama. Minnesota and Wisconsin breeding populations have two migration routes, and both generally use the Great Lakes as staging areas. The primary route includes the Gulf of Mexico from Mississippi west to Texas, and the second documented route uses the southern Great Lakes to make an easterly migration to the mid-Atlantic.


This means that the bulk of the loons nesting in our listening area will be headed to the Gulf within the next three months—quite likely while new oil is still gushing into what is already a disaster area. I’m not sure if there is any natural way some loons will figure out the danger in time to avoid being oiled, and the scale of this disaster and the number of species it’s affecting and will affect is too enormous for anyone to wrap their heads around, much less develop any kind of realistic action plan focused on just one species of so many.
Young loons remain in salt water for usually a couple of years, which means loons that hatched in 2008 and 2009 are on the Gulf and the Atlantic coasts right now. They tend to stay pretty far away from shore in summer, so aren’t easy to census, and will be easily overlooked if they sink or get wrapped in gunk. We’ll never be able to assess how many were lost, but we can count on smaller loon numbers for many years to come.

Last week I photographed a pair of loons and their two chicks on a lake near Boulder Dam, Wisconsin. I watched one of the adults waggling its foot and a chick imitating it—a charming thing that would have filled me with delight most years. But I kept wondering what this little family would be facing in a matter of weeks, and felt sick to my stomach. This disaster is bigger than any of us have been able to even imagine, and the oil is still gushing.

5 comments :

  1. "This disaster is bigger than any of us have been able to even imagine, and the oil is still gushing." Yes, this is what I fear also. I pray that nature's resiliancy will show up in ways we do not know (maybe the loons will somehow naturally avoid the area of the disaster?) I've thought that maybe we will be as amazed as we are when nature recovers from fires (as in Yellowstone) or volcano eruptions (Mt St. Helen's) or hurricane habitat destruction, but then I remember these are natural disasters and what we are facing here is definitely not natural. I hope scientists are studying the horrible effects and will be able to apply science to somehow help us know what to do when this happens again. It will happen again.

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  2. There are no words that can convey how sad the thought of what 'our' Loons will be facing this fall has made me feel.
    Tears have been shed; but what good does that do?
    Feeling so helpless . . .
    and at the same time angry; and having that feeling of wanting to fight. But with whom?
    Thank you for keeping the issue in our awareness.

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  3. This is certainly something to worry about. I never would have even thought about it without you posting this.

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  4. Hello all,

    I live on the Gulf Coast in Florida but the oil has not reached us yet but it will. I am an avid birder and many species will take a huge hit in numbers.The oil spill is much worse than what is being shown on television.It if you want an idea on big it is take a look at NASA's photos from space.It makes me SICK.I am very disappointed in the people handling the oil spill. They allowed the oil to enter the estuaries,rookeries and marshes.It will be decades before we clean this up.40 years of conservation gone.

    greg from Florida

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  5. Excellent blog, Laura you have become one of my favorite bloggers!!!
    Keep up the great work!

    Ricky

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