Needing 100+ feet to take flight, Common Loon saved from rapidly freezing ice
The loon was likely just stopping for a rest. What he got was a rescue by Geauga Park District’s Senior Naturalist Dan Best. Once airborne, the beautiful Common Loon can fly 70 miles per hour.
But because their legs are on the far backs of their bodies, making them good swimmers – and because they are heavy birds, the only birds around here with solid bones – loons need somewhere between 100 feet and a quarter mile, depending on the wind, to scramble along the water in order to take flight.
The lake at Walter C. Best Wildlife Preserve in Munson Township had been almost entirely water on Wednesday, December 11, according to a frequent dog walker there who took part in the rescue. But when the cold snap happened overnight, this loon found himself trapped in an oval of water roughly 6 feet by 8 feet, which was continuing to shrink by the hour.
Had it stayed there much longer, it would have perished either in the ice or on it. Unusual for this time of year, the bird was calling – a call for help, if any could come.
Thankfully, Jerome Tvergyak of Geauga Park District’s North Operations was enjoying the park, too, as he plowed the snow for walkers the morning of Thursday, December 12.
“Jerome always has a good eye for things, and it’s not unusual for him to alert us naturalists to cool nature happenings he sees while he’s working,” Senior Naturalist Dan Best said. “He quickly sent an email to all the right people to try to stage an intervention.”
While Chief Naturalist John Kolar and Field Naturalist Tami Gingrich brainstormed rescue techniques, Dan ran home nearby and returned with his canoe, ladders, a rope and a landing net.
“But honestly,” said John, “it didn’t look good for the loon. The ice looked thick enough that it would be hard to break through with a boat, but thin enough that we couldn’t walk on it. We were really doubting we could help the loon without putting human lives at risk.”
To keep things safe, John recruited the Ranger Department, namely Rangers Jim Kailburn and Mike Benesh, to oversee. Among safety measures was a life jacket that would inflate only when it touched water, giving Dan a broader range of movement during the rescue.
Driving Dan’s truck and the ranger vehicle close to a half mile onto the trail – what regular park visitors would call “across from the wildlife blind” – the rescue squad unloaded and set the canoe down on the ice. Then, using his own weight, Dan scooted the canoe over the surface of the ice, slowly breaking what was ahead, for roughly 75 feet.
He tells it best. “I had my landing net ready to go, but I didn’t just start making swings with the net. I let [the loon] keep coming up for air – it would take a breath of air and then go back down again, swimming under the ice.”
Dan waited for the right opportunity, roughly 15 minutes on the ice. “I was being coached from the sidelines, and they said, ‘Scoot your canoe to cover part of the opening to make the opening even smaller.’ So I did, and on my second try, I got it.”
A rope attached to the canoe for safety was used to pull Dan and the loon back to shore.
“We felt it was a well thought-out, safe operation that we did,” John said. “So often, when it comes to these situations, it’s not the best outcome for the bird.”
Geauga Park District does not have wildlife rehabilitation facilities, so Dan took the loon for a check-up to the Kevin P. Clinton Wildlife Center at Lake Metroparks’ Penitentiary Glen in Kirtland.
“He was really tired,” said Wildlife Center Manager Tammy O’Neil on Friday. “The edges of his wings were really cold, and he just didn’t have a lot of energy. So we filled him up with some vitamins and fluids, heated him up, and today he’s fighting us and calling and swimming around and looks great.”
The plan was to release the loon at the Eastlake power point near the hot water discharge, fed by water used to cool the plant’s giant electrical generators.
And that’s just what happened Friday afternoon – the loon returned to nature. It all happened so quickly, photos taken of the release all turned out blurry. But just imagine the loon back in natural waters, catching up on its fishy diet, and there you have it: a success story, thanks to another partnership between your Geauga Park District and Lake Metroparks.
Visit Geauga Park District on Facebook to see pictures of the rescue.
Visit Geauga Park District on YouTube to see and hear the loon calling for help HERE.