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'Outdoor Happenings': Common Loons

In early January, the St. Croix Valley Bird Club sponsored an exceptional talk on Loons at the Hudson Library. Sam Lewis, from "LoonWatch," spoke on his "72 Years of Listening to Loons." Accompanied by his two young granddaughters, who provided commentary and visual aids, Sam's presentation outlined the life history and behavior of this unique bird. We are very lucky to have lakes pristine enough to support family breeding pairs of loons so close to a large metropolitan area.

There are five loon species (Arctic, Pacific, Red-throated, Yellow-billed and Common) that inhabit the northern hemisphere but the only one we have locally is the Common Loon. The loon is considered one of the most primitive birds on earth and has been around unchanged for a million years. The first loon appeared about 25 million years ago and measured almost six feet from beak to tail. Our current loons now weigh from 8-16 pounds but can have a five-foot wingspread. They can live from 25 - 30 years.

The word loon comes from the word "clumsy" and the bird has very large feet that are set far back which aids greatly in swimming but is not conducive for walking on dry land. Sam noted that if a loon was the size of a human it would have the equivalent of a 52 size shoe. Loons can dive to a depth of 300 feet and can swim underwater for a quarter of a mile with one breath. Because of their weight and body makeup, they need to run on the water to become air-borne but once in flight can achieve an air speed of 70 mph, flapping their wings 200 times per minute nonstop. Unlike most birds whose bones are hollow, loons have solid bones that aid them in swimming underwater. Loons consume primarily fish and small crustaceans and will eat two pounds per day. A family of loons can consume 900 pounds of fish in a season.

Loons have four basic calls and each loon has a distinct voice pattern. The yodel is a territorial call, the wail is a locator call, the hoot is a soft one note call used to call chicks or mates while the tremolos sound like a laugh and is used when loons are disturbed. I have heard all four calls and now understand a bit of what they mean. Next spring I will definitely listen closer to their vocalizations.

Our loons arrive on Wisconsin lakes as soon as the ice goes out and are nesting by mid-May. The eggs hatch in mid-June. Usually each nest contains two eggs. Each nesting pair is extremely territorial and need about 100 acres of territory per pair. Small lakes less than a hundred acres will have only one breeding pair. Single loons can be seen on most lakes and these are the young or non-paired up loons waiting to seek a mate and claim a territory. Loons usually breed at 4 years of age.

In the fall, adult loons migrate first, followed later by the young loons. Our area loons first go to Lake Michigan where they spend some time. They then migrate to specific areas on the Gulf of Mexico where they stay until the spring migration, returning usually back to the same lake. The young loons remain in the gulf until they are 3-5 years old and then return to the same areas, usually within a few miles of the lake they were hatched. Loons from farther east will overwinter along the Atlantic Coast.

Presently there are estimated to be approximately 4,000 adult loons in Wisconsin, 12,000 in Minnesota, 36,000 in the United States and 580,000 in Canada. We need to ensure that these birds continue to thrive and expand their numbers so that their "call of the wild" will continue to be heard by future generations!

2013 Spring New Richmond Hunter Education Class

This class is required for anyone born after Jan. 1, 1973, who wishes to secure a hunting license in Wisconsin. Students should be 12 years of age before Dec. 31, 2013. Pre-registration is required with students taken in order of registration. The class size is limited to the first 60 applicants. The first class is Monday, Feb. 4, starting at 7 p.m. at the New Richmond National Guard Armory, 1245 Wall St. Classes will be held on Monday and Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. and ends on March 18. No classes are scheduled on Feb. 7, 11 and 14. A range day will also be held on Saturday, March 16, from 8 a.m. until noon at the Willow River Rod and Gun Club.

All students must have a Wisconsin DNR Customer ID# and can be acquired by calling 1-888-936-7463. Cost of the class is $10. Students in need of special accommodations are asked to call prior to the first class. For more information contact Ron Roettger at 715-248-3883.

Amazing Weather Change

Last Saturday we awoke to a day filled with sunshine and warm temperatures. Sal and I participated in the Friends of the St. Croix Wetland Management District's "Winter Ecology Walk" on Oak Ridge WPA. Temperatures started out in the mid 20's and ended up at noon slightly above the freezing point. The weather was perfect for this extremely informational and entertaining outing! A few friends came over to our house for lunch and left about 3 p.m. Nothing at that time indicated the change in the weather that would occur in a very short time. We had plans to do a bit of skiing on the lake with our neighbors that afternoon. We began our ski in front of our house and as we did we noticed a marked increase in the wind. A front was moving in and moving in very fast.

As the wind picked up we could physically feel a drop in temperature. On the open lake the gusts reached gale speed. The sparse snowfall that was on the lake actually blew off the lake. Wind gusts physically pushed us down the lake without any effort on our part.

Visibility was minimal and spiraling "snow tornados" swirled everywhere. Folks fishing in portable shelters were blown over. It was truly an amazing experience. We cut our ski outing short and returned home.

Listening to earlier weather forecasts we were well aware of what to expect. The reports and timing of the weather system were remarkably accurate. In less than an hour the temperature dropped from a balmy 36 to 9 degrees.

Warming up over a hot apple cider, we talked about the early warning system and how folks years ago could experience the start of a beautiful day and have it turned into something not so nice. The Armistice Day Blizzard started out as such a day on Nov. 11, 1940, and ended up with 27 inches of snow, 50-80 mph wind gusts and a 50 degree temperature drop accounting for 145 deaths being attributed to the storm. While not anywhere near as dramatic as that, our recent weather change was truly remarkable!