Marge Gibson, executive director of REGI, checks a loon for injuries before releasing it back into the wild.
Marge Gibson, executive director of REGI, checks a loon for injuries before releasing it back into the wild.
Last week’s cold snap brought spring to a screeching halt, but it resulted in more than just the usual bellyaching by locals who weren’t too keen to see winter return.

Icy cold and wintry conditions April 25 and 26 proved catastrophic for loons who were making their annual migration north for the upcoming summer season. 

The Raptor Education Group, Inc. (REGI) a nonprofit organization out of Antigo that is dedicated to the care and rehabilitation of injured or orphaned native bird species and public education of wildlife issues, put up an emergency alert on Facebook April 26 asking the public for help in locating loons that were forced to land unexpectedly mid-migration. 

According to Marge Gibson, executive director of REGI, the loon migration fallout event was caused by the birds’ feathers icing at altitude due to the storm, which forced some of these migrating birds to land on wet asphalt or freshly tilled or planted fields that can look like dark water from above.

Gibson explained that this is detrimental to loons’ health because once on the ground, loons are unable to walk, fly or take off. They can “scoot” on their bellies, but cannot get airborne. 

“If you see a loon on the ground, it needs help,” said Gibson. “Loons require at least a quarter- to half-mile of water in order to take off, so even those who were found in small ponds did not have the proper space needed to fly off again.”

Members of the public were asked to assist any loons spotted on the ground or in small ponds by throwing a blanket, jacket or towel over the bird and grabbing the beak in one hand as they can use their sharp beaks aggressively, and then calling a local avian wildlife rehabilitator for instructions (REGI, Wild Instincts in Rhinelander, or Northwoods Wildlife Center in Minocqua). 

Gibson stressed that grounded loons should not be put into small ponds, noting that it is harder for rescue teams to get to them because they dive underwater to escape. The loons are unable to fly out themselves as ponds don’t offer the proper amount of space to takeoff, nor do they provide the needed amount of food for loons to survive.

 

Rescued loons

Wild Instincts in Rhinelander also was out assisting downed loons last week.

According to Mark Naniot, director of rehabilitation at Wild Instincts, the organization was able to help three loons over about a three-hour period on April 26. None of the loons suffered any injuries, which can happen when a loon mistakes pavement or other hard surfaces for water and has a rough landing.

“There was a triangle from about Rhinelander to Tomahawk to Antigo that had the perfect temperatures for freezing rain. Loons are heavy-bodied birds and not the best fliers to begin with, so when ice gets on their wings it can send them into crisis mode looking for lakes or rivers to land on as a place to wait out the storm,” Naniot explained.

As of the morning of April 30, REGI had released seven loons back into the wild, and two more injured birds were under observation at the center. Although the two were suffering from internal bleeding, Gibson expected them to make a full recovery. 

Gibson said that REGI received about 150 calls from people in Langlade, and parts of Lincoln and Oneida counties who had spotted downed loons. 

While some loons experienced injuries to the bottom of their feet caused by rough landings, many were found appearing to be healthy, in good weight and condition. 

But the process of releasing loons has its own challenges.

Gibson said that release is not a simple process with loons near breeding time, as they are territorial and will injure or even kill interlopers on their lake. 

“That is why putting them in just any lake is not safe. We are consulting loon researchers to see what lakes are neutral territory to release the loons safely,” said Gibson.

Normally, it would be a bit early in the year for territory to be an issue, but Gibson explained that loons came back early this year thanks to the ice going out on lakes, so resident loons have begun to defend their territory.

REGI has been releasing captured loons into large lakes such as Nokomis or Pelican as they are more “neutral territory” lakes. She likened these larger bodies of water to a “grocery store” for loons because they can visit there to eat fish, but don’t consider it their own territory. The released loons can then take off and continue on their journey to their summer home. 



Loon deaths

Gibson said she won’t have an idea of how many fatalities occurred from the event for some time. 

“Loons out of water are helpless and can be predated on easily,” Gibson said. She said that animals such as coyotes, bobcats, foxes and dogs all pose threats to downed or injured loons. 

Another problem with loons icing up at altitude is that they cannot perform proper landings and instead can come crashing down, which can lead to falling birds hitting trees or branches. Gibson expects more bodies will be discovered once warmer temperatures arrive and people are out exploring the woods and fields.

“Loons are a huge part of life in the North Woods and we are hopeful to find more alive in the coming days,” she added. She and her staff are hopeful, but Gibson said that the time for finding live loons is disappearing rapidly.



Migration research


Gibson has been living and working in the Antigo area since 1990 and this is only the third time she has seen a loon migration event in all her years. She said a similar event occurred in 2013 involving a massive number of birds which were being found all the way up to the Ashland area.

Gibson has been in contact with loon experts across the country who are interested in this event. She said that not much is known about loon migration habits, but that they hope to be able to learn more. 

She also is talking with a local meteorologist about weather specifics that occurred April 25-26 in the hopes that she can learn more about why these events happen and perhaps be more prepared next time. 

“People make such a difference for wildlife rehabilitators. We appreciate everyone’s efforts during this crisis and year round in helping to care for wounded animals in need,” Gibson said. “Just getting the education about these animals out there is so important, and the public response has been overwhelming.”



Rehab locations 

Animals can be hurt and wounded year round and people can help rehabilitation experts by contacting local organizations when they find animals in need. These organizations also provide educational outreach across the North Woods as well.

Area rehab sites include Wild Instincts Rehabilitation in Rhinelander, run by Mark Naniot and Sharon Larson.

Since 1996, Mark and Sharon have been responsible for the care and treatment of more than 17,000 wild animals from more than 100 different species.

To contact Wild Instincts, visit wildinstinctsrehab.com or call 24 hours a day at (715) 362-WILD (9453). 

Northwoods Wildlife Center in Minocqua provides the wildlife of the North Woods with rescue, rehabilitation, and release services, covering roughly 25% of the state. As one of the most established wildlife rehabilitation centers in northern Wisconsin, the center admits 600 to 700 animals a year in need of medical treatment and care. 

Northwoods Animal Center accepts animal admissions by appointment only. The wildlife rehabilitation team is available daily from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. for wildlife calls. Calls received after 7 p.m. will be returned the following morning. For information, visit northwoodswildlifecenter.org or call (715) 356-7400.

REGI in Antigo supports bird rescue, assistance and education and can be reached at raptoreducationgroup.org, (715) 623-4015. Executive directors Marge and Don Gibson founded REGI in 1990. 

Marge has worked with wildlife for more than 30 years. She began her work with raptors as a field biologist and has worked with many high profile field projects including the California Condor Recovery Team and the Bald Eagle Capture and Health Assessment Program in Valdez, Alaska following the Valdez Oil Spill where she was team captain. 

In addition, Marge teaches wildlife rehabilitation internationally. Don is a recently retired M.D. who specialized in Pathology.