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Satellite Tracked Loon Returns From Oil Slicked Gulf

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(credit: CBS) Bill Hudson
Bill Hudson has been with WCCO-TV since 1989. The native of Elk Rive...
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By Bill Hudson, WCCO-TV

COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. (WCCO) – As winter’s icy grip releases Sagatagan Lake, months of anxious waiting and wondering are over. For Kristina Timmerman and Carol Jansky, loon number 55480 is back on summer waters.

“I’ve been watching, waiting and hoping he was going to come back soon,” Jansky said.

The two St. John’s University staffers have been following the loon they affectionately call, “Big John,” since last July. That’s when they assisted the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources when the male loon was captured and tagged with a tiny satellite “geolocator.” The device would allow researchers to follow his winter migration down to the oil slicked gulf.

It’s been nearly a year since the May 3, 2010 explosion on an oil drilling platform began spewing nine million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The looming environmental disaster reverberated all the way to Minnesota where concern immediately began growing over the future of the state bird, the common loon.

A concern because the sights and sounds of loons plying Minnesota’s lakes are a summertime treat to tourists and residents alike. But in the fall the estimated 12,000 loons band up and migrate to their winter homes in the Gulf of Mexico and the southeastern Atlantic coast.

To see what effects the spill might have on the birds, the DNR fitted “Big John” with a satellite transmitter, known as a geolocator, which would help track its daily movements.

Looking at a computer map, the DNR’s Carrol Henderson points to it and says, “then he made a two-day flight down to the gulf.”

Henderson is coordinator of the DNR’s non-game wildlife program. He paid close attention to the loon’s every movement, as indicated by a series of dots on a colorful computerized map. Initially, it spent time along the Florida panhandle and then flew further south to the waters offshore Fort Myers.

But loon 55480 was among the fortunate birds. Sadly, many loons died in the spill and its lingering aftermath. Henderson said because of the loon’s heavy body, countless more loons likely died and sank to the ocean bottom, never to be found.

“Those 107 dead loons may be just 5 to 10 percent of the number lost in the total counts,” Henderson said.

On March 16, the geolocator sent out a signal indicating the loon had begun it’s three-week return migration. On April 9, it was observed near the tranquil waters of Sagatagan Lake, to the delight of Timmerman and Jansky.

“I was concerned because I had a real attachment to this pair,” Jansky said.

And yet, just because the loon found his way back to Minnesota doesn’t mean he’s out of the woods. Loons dive to the bottom to feed and that’s where the oil settled in the gulf. Biologists say, because of that, there’s concern he may have ingested dangerous levels of toxins.

So Big John’s job is far from over. He will continue to be carefully studied and monitored — revealing valuable data that will provide a better understanding of the disaster’s true scope.

“This summer we’ll be looking for blood and sending it to a scientist in Connecticut for testing, looking for any petroleum materials in the blood,” Henderson said.

The DNR hopes future funding will allow it to place satellite transmitters and geolocators on another 50 loons this summer. That’s one of the projects made possible by contributions to the state’s non-game wildlife check off.

For information on tracking the state’s loons, follow this link.

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