Winter Loon Rescue

Ron Lori Bay
If you’re a loon, landing on a frozen lake is the last mistake you’ll likely ever make. To escape what, at this point, can only be considered certain doom, you must get to open water. And, because loons are relatively heavy, short of wing, and highly adapted for swimming and diving, they’re largely unequipped for walking or taking off from a solid surface. Unlike a duck, loons need speed, a headwind, and a long watery runway to get airborne. Such was the dire predicament of a wayward loon on this frigid New Year’s morning. And the poor fellow had about as much chance for flight as an airplane parked in your driveway.  IMG_20140101_095159_419
Round Lake sits between Petoskey and Harbor Springs, just a stone’s throw from the open water of Little Traverse Bay, likely the last departure point for the loon. Had this been an uninhabited lake, the only uncertainty would be in what form, and how soon, the end would come; by attack, exposure, starvation or thirst.
Luckily for this loon, its flapping distress didn’t escape the notice of Lori Pool, who called me to say her husband Ron was coming across the ice carrying a captured, and possibly injured, loon. Couldn’t be, I wondered incredulously, dressing with one hand on this first morning of the year. She soon assured me over the phone that it was; Ron having arrived back, cradling the proof in his arms.
Twenty minutes later, we pulled the bird from a cardboard box padded with Ron’s flannel jacket, and examined it for injuries. Finding none, but fearing our own from its lightning-swift bill, we hastily, but gently, re-boxed it and decided that getting it back in water as soon as possible was the mandatory course.
In early winter, open water around Lake Michigan is a near guarantee, but this was no normal season, and the bay was churning with chunk ice, or that resembling a massive Slurpee. But a breezy morning left the water to the western side of Petoskey’s breakwall a wavy, ice-free zone.
Kneeling on an ice shelf, with a kiss to the back of its head for luck (mostly to shield my face from the loon’s snapping, dagger-like bill) I gently tossed it onto an approaching swell, which seemed to arrive with the express purpose of receiving the loon back into its rightful element.
The loon dove, surfaced, and began the long process of oiling and waterproofing its dried-out feathers, restoring order to its disheveled condition, a matter of survival for a bird living constantly in water.
 Loon Release
Once back at Round Lake, I asked to be shown where the loon came down. From the evidence imprinted in the snow, the loon landed with more a thud than a skid, excreting on impact. From there, it traveled some yards in unhurried fashion, a trench straddled by footprints, made by its belly pushing through the snow. At one point, a dog-like track intercepted the loon’s trail, where its gait turned more frantic, wingtip prints flanked its footprints, indicating the loon was running/wing-flapping in an attempt to flee its pursuer. Soon, chaotic signs of a struggle, a few frozen drops of blood, a feather here and there, and another chase. Another confrontation, then the tracks went separate ways. The dog had had enough, the blood likely the result of bill stabs to the face, the loon escaping unscathed. Ron’s footprints joined the loon’s soon after, and the story comes full circle.
Why he came down on this frozen lake will remain a mystery, though loons sometimes mistake an expansive surface, like a field, or snowy lake, for open water; even a winding road for a river. Perhaps he was forced down by another bird. We’ll never know how it started, but we revel in the happy ending.

11 responses to “Winter Loon Rescue

  1. Hi there, my name is Sandy Riney and I’m hoping you can help our male loon on Blue Lake in Kalkaska, Mi. He is the mate of returning parents year to year and has a fishing hook on the side of his bill that seems to have a line attached. The DNR has come out twice with no luck but he is getting weaker and I feel like someone can capture and help him now. The DNR says they cannot come out anymore. Can you please help? Everyone on the lake is very concerned as we love these loons. Very much appreciated. Looking forward to hearing back.

    • Sandy, The loon would likely have to be captured at night. To do this we need a spotlight, salmon net, boat and elec motor. If you can arrange for these things, I can help you, but the only night I have this week would be Thursday around midnight. After that, I’m in NY for a week. email me at if you still need my help. Alternatively, call me at 231-347-3688 10-6 and I can guide you through the capture procedure if you want to try it yourself. Thanks.

  2. Reblogged this on LoonCorps and commented:

    For anyone curious about where the picture of my Gravatar came from, I’m reposting this event from New Year’s Day, 2014.

  3. Patricia Johnson

    I had a similar experience with a Red Breasted Merganser except this poor creature was running down the shoulder of a busy road. I was instructed not to assist it for there were heavy fines if not licensed to do this kind of work. I do not see the harm in assisting an otherwise healthy bird to open water. Apparently, he had landed near the road thinking it was the river.
    Sadly, there isn’t anyone in my area that IS licensed to help birds. I would like to see that change. How would I go about that?

    • Patricia–If you tell me your approximate location, I could probably find the nearest rehab to you. We have several here in N. Mich. I just Google to find out who does what. If you’re interested in doing this, contact any rehab person in your state and see what it takes to become one. It’s hard work, and can get expensive, and once people know about you, you’ll soon be inundated with orphaned and injured animals. It’s also very rewarding. Nothing like giving an animal a second chance.

      Speaking strictly for myself, if an animal is in imminent danger, and I feel comfortable handling it, I usually just save first and answer questions later.

      • Patricia Johnson

        Hi Jeff,
        Thanks for getting back to me. I would like to know of a rehab, (for birds), in the Oscoda, Iosco County, area. I actually did pick up the Red Breasted Merganser for I thought it had a broken wing and I thought I knew a fella in my area that did rehabilitation.
        When I contacted him he informed me that he didn’t have a license for birds and that I was in a precarious position for the duck was a Federal Bird. He said he didn’t know anyone in our area that rehabilitated birds. I went to the internet in search of someone who could help.
        I called MSU and they gave me the name of a gal in Oscoda who they said was licensed and that she could assist me. Unfortunately, she did not have a licensed and she also told me to take caution when releasing the bird for the fines were very stiff. I couldn’t believe that my good intentions could end up costing me in severe fines!
        The good news was that the bird wasn’t actually injured. He, like the Loons, could not take off from land and was in search of open water. I live close to the AuSable River where the current is strong so there is a lot of open water that I could release him to.
        I gave him a good meal, (a dozen Pike Minnows), he had some rest and I let him go by the river.
        As much as I would love to be part of the rehabilitation for these birds/animals, I am disabled and on a very limited income. I would however like to rescue an animal in need and get them to a proper rehab center.
        If you could assist me with that I would be very grateful.
        Thanks again for getting back with me. This year has been extremely harsh on all our wildlife….they could use our help to survive these conditions.
        Patty Johnson

    • You may have been to the link below, but it’s a DNR list of Rehab centers. Unfortunately, I don’t see any for Oscoda or Iosco Counties. I take any loons or other birds that need checked out to Cindy Burns, who’s the only listing for Otsego County. She does birds, and may be the closest to you. I’ll get back to you if I hear of any closer.

  4. Great job Ron and Lori, My Bother and Sister-In laws

  5. Jeff, Lori and Ron “Thank You” for your wonderful work.

  6. Thanks Tory!
    Just a note: Lori Pool took the photos, except the one of her and Ron (at top), which I took. Click on any photo to enlarge.

  7. You guys are like super hero’s! Congrats on another exciting rescue mission. A job well done.

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