A Human Family Saves a Loon Family

John on Lumen Lake sensed something troubling about the loons on around August 13th. He noticed a burst of unusual calls, but he also saw that the chick was still alive, healthy, and being attended by an adult. So he was not sure what to think. As it turned out, the Lumen male was in a struggle for his life on Birch Lake, 2 km away, where he had gone to forage. His miraculous escape and recovery — and his mate’s ability to hold the fort and keep their chick alive during his absence — has become a rare feel-good story to report during a difficult year.

We are able to piece together this story from combined accounts of folks on Lumen Lake, Birch Lake, and our own team member, Lyn, who has generously remained behind in the study area and continued to gather valuable data on chick feeding patterns and survival. The story begins on August 11th, when Lyn made a routine visit to Lumen, found the male alone with the chick, and reported nothing unusual about the duo. Two days later, Mike Henrichs and his three grandkids, Jaden, Jesse, and Jordan, were out fishing on Birch Lake when they noticed an adult loon behaving strangely and found that it was dragging a bobber and fishing line. And here is the crux of the story. Instead of merely reporting the loon in distress to a local DNR office, which lacks the personnel to assist injured wildlife, the Henrichs decided to help it. They could see that the loon was not diving to avoid them, as a loon normally would, so they approached the bird, grabbed hold of the fishing line attached to its leg, and pulled it onto their boat. As their video shows, they then patiently cut the line off the loon’s leg, around which it had become tightly wrapped, dislodged a hook from the loon’s bill, and joyously released it. Everyone had a role. Thirteen-year-old Jaden helped her grandpa hold the bird, locate the line and hook, and release it; 9-year-old Jesse did the camera work, and 7-year-old Jordan endured frequent helpful tips from his brother and kept the boat off shore. The Henrichs were unaware of this loon’s current status and, naturally enough, presumed he was a resident of Birch Lake.

But we knew different. In fact, the entangled loon was not merely a floater, killing time until the fall migration; he was a father with a chick and territory to defend. His sudden entanglement and consequent inability to return to his breeding lake put his mate on Lumen in a bind. She became the sole provider and defender of their seven-week-old chick. Moreover, she was suddenly saddled with the task of fending off efforts of intruders to take over her territory without her mate’s help. We cannot be certain when the Lumen male took someone’s bait on Birch and became entangled in the attached monofilament line, but it was almost certainly sometime on the 11th or 12th, because the bird was quite weak and compromised by the 13th, when the Henrichs freed him. Thus, the female was on her own with her chick for at least two — but perhaps as long as nine — days.

Single parenting, as I have described lately, is no picnic for loons and usually has dire consequences. After the recent debacle on Arrowhead that forced a female there into a prolonged period of single parenting and will likely result in loss of one or both chicks, we were ready for a happier outcome. Still, I was dumbfounded to learn that Lyn had seen the disentangled male back on Lumen — seeming none the worse for wear — on August 20th. Her observation meant that the male had become hopelessly entangled, lost a good deal of strength, been caught and cut loose, and somehow recovered well enough to take off and fly back to his breeding lake within a period of nine days — in time to rescue his mate from her challenging stint of uniparental care. The key to the male’s survival and rapid recovery was no doubt that he was found by a calm, determined family within a few days of his entanglement, when he still had enough residual strength to bounce back and return to his own family.

How could a breeding loon’s desperate brush with death lead to such a heart-warming outcome? Simple. A thoughtful human family took it upon themselves to help a loon in distress. And the loon they rescued took full advantage of their generosity.