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Young Loons Prepare for Their First Migration
Seney National Wildlife Refuge, Seney, Michigan

September 22, 1997
Right now, biologists at the Seney National Wildlife Refuge in northern Michigan are watching and waiting as their final 6 loons fatten up for their long trip south.

"Just a few weeks ago, we had nearly 30 Loons here," reports Joe Kaplan, Loon biologist at the Seney National Wildlife Refuge. Based on the many banding recoveries made of Loons from the refuge, these loons are probably preparing to head for the Florida Coast where they'll spend the winter.

Typically, adult Loons migrate ahead of the young, leaving them behind to fend for themselves. The young remain longer in order to feed and strengthen up for their first-ever, long-distance journey. Most leave by the end of September, but some will stay until the lakes begin to freeze and they're forced to move on. Young loons fly to the Atlantic Coast all by themselves, and won't be back for 3-4 years. This is because loons don't return to the nesting grounds until they're old enough to breed.

Dr. F.G. Irwin
Loons have a very short time to learn how to fly, hunt for fish, and protect themselves against predators. Less than 3 months ago, these young Loons were tiny chicks covered in down. Right after they are born, their parents take the chicks to a sheltered area of the lake which is like a nursery. Here the Loon parents feed their chicks fish and protect them from predators. Often you can see the young babies riding on their parents backs.

How Do They Do It?
How do young Loons know how to get to their winter destination? The answer is still a mystery, and very little research has been done on this aspect of Loon migration. Clearly Loons are born with instinctual programming that tells them when and where to migrate. The fact that Loons migrate during the day is one clue. This suggests they must orient by the sun or the magnetic pull of the earth, rather than by the stars as night migrants can. After their first migration, memory of landforms and water bodies may help them navigate.

Social or Solitary?
Loons are generally seen alone during the summer months. However, late in the season, adult and young Loons tend to gather together in large groups which biologists call "social gatherings." Some think the Loons group-up in order to help teach the young how to prepare for migration.

Social gatherings of over 650 Loons were seen last week on Lake Winibigoshish in Minnesota. A single group of 235 birds was there on September 14th, according to the Minnesota Rare Bird Hotline. (Lake Winibigoshish is near the headwaters of the Mississippi River.)

Julie Brophy
Who's Who?
Loons look alike once they reach adulthood. Even the males and females have identical plumage. Scientists can recognize individual loons at Seney NWR, however. This is because almost half of the nesting population there has been marked with colored leg bands. In fact, the loons at Seney NWR are the most carefully studied group of loons anywhere. "Much of our understanding of loon's population ecology is based on the hundreds of observation hours collected on color-marked individuals at Seney," says Loon biologist Dave Evers. "Since territorial pairs are easily monitored and followed each year--and between years--we are able to better understand hard-to-collect information,"

More about Seney National Wildlife Refuge
Seney National Wildlife Refuge provides a good example of how land can be restored for wildlife. In the late 1800's, Michigan's upper peninsula was completely logged over. Then, fires that burned out of control nearly destroyed all living things. Later, developers sold the land for agriculture. Because the soils had been destroyed by fires, the farms failed and the land went back to the state of Michigan. The state recommended that a portion of the area be restored as a national wildlife refuge. The government began by damming, diking, and impounding several rivers. This created a network of large and small lakes, wetlands, and islands. Now eagles, black bears, beavers, sandhill cranes, and many other wildlife find plenty of good habitat at the refuge.

"Loons like it here," explains Kaplan, "because there are lots lakes, plenty of fish to eat, numerous little islands where they can build their nests and, best of all, no humans and boats to bother them. They return to Seney year after year in the spring to breed."

Coming Next Week
Baltimore Orioles head south with warbler migration.
Tinicum National Wildlife Refuge (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

The Next Journey South Update Will be Posted on September 29, 1997.

Other Fall Nature Notes

  • A Peregrine Falcon has just flown from northern Alberta, Canada to Veracruz, Mexico, in less than 21 days according to Geoff Holroyd of the Canadian Wildlife Service who is tracking her journey by satellite telemetry this fall. Geoff has offered to provide his detailed report. Stay posted.

  • In Northern Maine, the first frost has hit but the last hummingbirds are still there: "In Monson, Maine we still have a few pairs of R-T Hummingbirds at the feeders. On 9/22 we had our first frost and temperatures down to 30F. One pair of hummers refuses to leave for parts south...."
    Piscataquis Community High School
    Monson, Maine