The Sound of Silence

This spring will reveal how well Minnesota’s loons weathered winter in the gulf after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Pattie Roggenkamp’s interest in loons began at a young age. Sitting at the kitchen table in her home on Birch Lake near Monticello, it’s obvious that Roggenkamp, 59, has a fondness for loons: paintings, mirrors, and a cross-stitch banner featuring the iconic Minnesotan bird decorate the walls; a stained-glass loon ornament handcrafted by her mother-in-law rests atop a cabinet; loon figurines line various shelves. “I grew up in Brainerd and some of my first memories are of hearing loons out on the water,” she says. “I’ve always been fascinated by them: their physiology, their beauty, their calls at night—very haunting.”

But Roggenkamp’s love for loons goes beyond trinkets and decoration. For the past 20 years, she has been heavily involved in numerous volunteer projects focused on documenting the bird. She started small with one-day loon counts organized through Hennepin Parks and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). There, she was assigned to a lake and told to count the loons at a certain time. “I was hooked after that,” she says.

Since then, Roggenkamp has donated her time to a handful of loon-monitoring efforts. Most of her attention, however, is focused on Birch Lake’s loons. This spring, she’s especially anxious about the birds’ return, and for good reason: This month marks the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which wreaked havoc on the coastlines and wildlife of the Gulf of Mexico. How that environmental disaster will affect Minnesota’s state bird, many of which spend winters on the Gulf, remains unknown.

As migratory birds, loons could technically be considered part-time residents of Minnesota. But ever since their adoption as the state bird in 1961, loons have reigned as top bird here, and for good reason: Minnesotans find them fascinating. Perhaps it’s because Minnesota has more loons than any other state besides Alaska (around 12,000). Or maybe it’s their quirky qualities—their lifespan of more than 30 years, an ability to dive as deep as 250 feet and stay under water for up to five minutes. More avid bird watchers note loons’ solid bone structure (most birds have hollow bones) and their ability to fly more than 75 miles per hour and survive in both fresh and salt water as intriguing. While Minnesotans’ reasons for loving loons may vary, one fact about the species has captured everyone’s attention and caused concern this past year: Loons spend the first three years of their lives down south, which means loons born in 2008 and 2009 were caught in the middle of the worst marine oil spill in history.

Young loons stay in the south in order to mature, says Pam Perry, a non-game wildlife lake specialist with the DNR. Perry says the bigger the bird, the longer it takes the species to reach maturity. “Things are more complicated with large birds,” she says. “Loons aren’t ready to breed until they’re three or four years old. Even after they return north, it may still take them a couple years to find a mate and reproduce.” When loons finally do reproduce, they typically lay only two eggs, and the young have a survival rate of 60 percent—at best—due to natural predators, like eagles, otters, and turtles, as well as manmade hazards. While many people are concerned about how the oil spill affected juvenile loons living in the Gulf, Perry says she’s more worried about the wintering adults. “Loons are very smart and long-lived, which normally compensates for low production,” she says. “But if the oil affects the adult birds and their ability to reproduce, it will have a greater impact.”

Between April 20 and July 15, 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon well was finally capped, approximately 206 million gallons of oil leaked into the water. That’s 19 times more than the amount spilled from the Exxon Valdez in 1989. Much of the oil was removed from the Gulf, but not all of it. As of August 2010, 52.3 million gallons still remained in the water or had washed ashore, corrupting the delicate food chain, habitat, and ecosystem of the area’s wildlife, including the loon.

Loons are bottom-feeders: Unlike most waterfowl that eat prey accessible on the water’s surface or scavenge the shorelines for food, loons dive to the very bottom of lakes and oceans for meals. “We know that loons feed on the creatures on the very bottom of the Gulf,” says Carrol Henderson, DNR non-game wildlife program supervisor. “What we don’t know is how contaminated those creatures are due to accumulations of oil residue.” Scientists also worry about a general lack of food available to birds. According to a study conducted by the National Audubon Society, the spill has reduced the amount of many prey species in the Gulf, and could have a large negative impact on marine life in the future. That, in turn, would leave birds without sufficient food, potentially impairing their ability to migrate and reproduce. “The whole thing is very complex,” Henderson says. “We’ll have to depend on good science and good scientists to put the pieces of the puzzle together and see the effects.”

One such scientist is Melanie Driscoll, Audubon’s director of bird conservation for the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi Flyway. Driscoll has helped organize Audubon’s response to the spill by coordinating volunteer efforts, speaking to the media and public, and working with Audubon partners to rescue wildlife. “We have concerns about the long-term, sub-lethal effects of oil on the food chain,” she says. “We don’t know how it will affect bird survival or reproduction. When they’re covered in oil, it’s easy to see that the birds are in danger. But when the oil is gone, it’s harder to see the damage. It’ll take long-term monitoring before answers surface.”

That’s where Minnesota’s loon-monitoring program comes into play, says the DNR’s Henderson. The program, which began in 1994, is a long-term project that involves hundreds of volunteers. Once a year, they gather information about the number of loons on more than 600 lakes around the state. Up until now, monitoring the loons has been little more than a tradition for participants—something for families to do together over Fourth of July weekend, says Rich Baker, the DNR’s endangered-species permit coordinator and one of the monitoring-program founders. But now, 17 years’ worth of data will be put to use in determining just how hard last year’s spill hit Minnesota’s most beloved bird.

“Over the years, people have questioned why we ask them to keep counting, because they often don’t see any significant changes year to year,” says Henderson, who has also been involved with the program since its inception. “What happened last year was like the perfect storm: The oil spill challenged those numbers, and now if there’s a change, we should be able to readily detect it.” But experts at the DNR aren’t anticipating a sudden dramatic drop in the numbers. “What’s more likely is that the spill will reduce the longevity of loons or affect their reproductive potential,” says Baker. Regardless, any population decline could take years to detect.

That’s not to say, however, that changes will go unnoticed. In addition to loon monitoring, the Minnesota DNR also organizes the LoonWatcher program. Designed for people who live on or regularly visit lakes, the program tasks volunteers with keeping tabs on their lake’s loons throughout the entire season and reporting such information as nesting success, number of loons observed, and any problems that may have negatively affected the birds.

One of the most active lakes for loon watching is Big Mantrap Lake in northern Minnesota. With numerous bays, islands, and channels, and more than 22 miles of shoreline, it’s an ideal location for nesting loons. Each year, the Big Mantrap Lake Association and dedicated loon watchers put together an annual loon report, as well as a little something extra: nesting rafts. Made of aluminum and outfitted with plastic-mesh covers, the rafts have been a project-in-progress for many years. The first raft went out in 1984, says Lyle Laske, a lake-association member and avid loon watcher. Today, there are 19 rafts, many of which have been made by students at the St. Cloud Technical College. Laske says the rafts have increased the number of nesting pairs over the years because they eliminate the dangers loons face when nesting on shore. And the success is in the numbers: Last season, the lake’s nesting loon pairs hatched a total of 24 eggs, 15 of which were on rafts.

Providing rafts is just one way people can help safeguard the loon population. Another option is to restore their habitats, both on the Gulf as well as here in Minnesota. “We can’t fix the fact that oil is out there,” Driscoll says. “And we can’t predict what the population impacts from the spill will be. But we can work on restoration and give the birds the resources they need to rebound.” To do that, she says it’s crucial that Congress directs the Clean Water Act penalties paid by BP to Gulf restoration efforts.

Here in Minnesota, the DNR has already crafted a plan to increase monitoring and restoration efforts with the help of the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources. If approved by the legislature, the project will receive $250,000 to conduct six activities aimed at assessing the impact of the spill on common loons and American white pelicans, another Minnesota species particularly vulnerable due to the spill. Some of the activities are simply continuations of current initiatives, like the loon-monitoring program. Other parts of the plan call for expansions to projects like U.S. Geological Survey wildlife researcher Kevin Kenow’s study on loon migration. Last year, Kenow fitted about 70 loons with geolocator tags, which record their daily location for a year, and 10 loons with satellite transmitters, which are designed to track more detailed movements and locations. The expansion outlined in the plan would outfit 60 more loons with geolocator tags and five with transmitters. Blood samples would also be collected to assess the presence of oil residue and dispersants in the birds.

Many experts seem hopeful about loons surviving the disaster, but they admit there are a lot of unknowns. And that uncertainty makes Roggenkamp anxious about how Birch Lake’s resident loon pair will fare. “Spring is usually my favorite time of year,” she says. “To hear that first loon flying overhead—it’s just so awesome. But this year, I’m a little apprehensive because I don’t know what to expect. I just can’t imagine our lakes being quiet.”

Ellen Burkhardt is Minnesota Monthly’s assistant editor.

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