One April morning, while still at home in Dunedin, Florida, I awoke to thunder from an approaching storm. A massive storm blew in from the Gulf with such force it made the palm trees in our front yard look like umbrellas turned inside-out. The rain slashed down, flooding the streets, lightning lit up the sky and thunder shook the windows.
By afternoon the skies cleared and the sun came out and husband, Gary, and I went to Honeymoon Island for our daily walk. We arrived at the beach, just as the tide was turning, but the storm surge from the morning storm was still crashing on the shore.
We were about a mile and a half into our walk when we caught sight of a large bird beached at the high tide line. It’s size and color were unusual for this beach. It wasn’t a willet or oystercatcher, or any of the other shore birds I normally see on my beach walks. Was that a loon?
I’ve seen loons in Florida before, but they are almost unrecognizable to me in their drab brown winter plumage.
This loon looked like the loons I see on the St. Lawrence River, with its black-and-white checkered back, iridescent black head, black bill and prominent white “necklace” marking around its neck. The loon was frantically preening, but as we approached, it saw us, raised its bill and let out a distress call that erased all doubt in my mind that this large black bird was indeed a common loon.
It was at the edge of the high tide line, which was high up on the shore that afternoon, because of the morning storm. The tide was going out. The loon’s legs are far back on its body—great for diving in the water, but not great for walking on land. I knew this loon was stranded. It couldn’t walk to the water. I also know that loons take off from the water. They sort of remind me of watching a B-17 take of,f as they need lots of runway, sort of running along the water before they are airborne.
The day was warm and I was worried about the loon getting overheated in the Florida sun. Instead of continuing on to the sandspit end of the island, we immediately turned around and walked back to find help. We talked to a park volunteer who reported our find and soon saw a ranger vehicle equipped with a pet carrier head up the beach.
We waited. Seems like it took an eternity for the vehicle to return. We followed it to the rangers’ station to check on the loon’s condition. The loon was sitting atop a towel and was at the very back of the pet carrier. It seemed to be resting comfortably.
We were told that there had been calls about stranded loons up and down the coast. Not loon experts, the rangers surmised that migrating loons were caught in the storm and washed ashore. “Our” loon was going to be picked up by a local bird rescue group, who would care for the loon until it could regain its strength and resume its flight north.
By the time we arrived home, my mind was swimming with questions. Where do loons winter? Do they migrate in groups? How long does it take for a loon to migrate? Was this loon on its way to Thousand Islands, NY? Would I see it some day off our front dock?
Luckily, I know a loon expert. His name is Vincent Spagnuolo. He grew up summering on Grenell. He is now a Research Specialist at the Center for Loon Conservation. I sent Vincent an email with a list of questions and he immediately responded.
Vincent told me that “Staging for migration is sometimes done in groups, but migration is almost always done solo. Loons are mostly solitary on the ocean, but some instances of groups of loons (sometimes 300+ flock, foraging cooperatively.” Researchers are still learning more about this phenomenon.
Not well-suited for the land, loons always winter on the water and it’s almost always the ocean. There are a few loons who winter on large reservoirs.
What I really wanted to know, if it were possible, that like me, this loon was migrating north to the Thousand Islands? Vincent said that there was no way to know as Thousand Islands loons aren’t banded, nor do any of them have the transmitters that would definitively tell us where they spend the winter. But it’s believed that most loons in the Northeast, winter anywhere from Chesapeake Bay to Northern Maine. Thousand Islands loons might only have to travel a few hundred miles. They can fly 70-80 mph, so their short migrations might be made in a few days with stopovers. can fly 70-80 mph, so their short migrations might be made in a few days with stopovers.
More than likely, the loon we found on Honeymoon Island, was a Central North American loon (i.e. Minnesota or Wisconsin). It might have to travel well over 1,000 miles to get to its summer breeding grounds. Vincent noted that the fall migration for Central North American loons may take a few weeks, but that the spring migration usually went quicker, as the loons were spurred on by hormones.
Vincent has been trying to get a research project together, over the last few years, to study the loon population in the Thousand Islands, but his efforts have taken a backseat, due to his involvement with a loon research project in the West. TILT has committed funds, but the effort still needs $15k+ to do something serious.
It’s migrating time of the year for more than just loons. As I write this, I know there are already people who have opened their cottages on Grenell. By the time this article posts, we’ll be on Grenell. I’m hoping that my migration north will go more smoothly than the poor loon I found washed ashore on Honeymoon Island.
Also hoping that someday Vincent will get the funding for a loon study, so we can learn more about the migration habits of the loons in the Thousand Islands area.
By Lynn E. McElfresh
Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to “TI Life,” writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. This marks number 90… You can see all of Lynn’s articles here. (We celebrated her #80 in July, 2015!) Lynn helps us move pianos, fix the plumbing and often finds books, places and people to review… This time she catches our imagination… This editor also hopes that someday Vincent will get the funding for a loon study with TILT, too!