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Loon Lessons: Uncommon Encounters with the Great Northern Diver

Updated: Aug 2, 2023

Dr. Paruk has studied breeding and wintering common loons across North America for 30 years and is one of the world’s leading experts on the species. Currently, he is a professor of biology at St. Joseph’s College, in Maine, adjunct professor of biology at the University of Southern Maine, and adjunct senior research scientist at the Biodiversity Research Institute in Portland, Maine. He presented highlights from his career and 2021 book, Loon Lessons: Uncommon Encounters with the Great Northern Diver. The book provides the most current detailed account of what we know about loon biology, behavior, and conservation in an accessible and entertaining style.

Dr. Paruk has been traveling and hosting a book tour to promote his new book, Loon Lessons (which I excitedly purchased), and within this tour he graciously made a stop at our weekly Tuesday Group with his traveling partner Sherry Abts. Sherry is a ‘local LOONatic’ and is accompanying Dr. Paruk throughout this journey in Ely; She stated that she learns more about loons every minute she’s with him. We were happy to welcome both of them to Tuesday Group and were excited to learn more about ‘The Great Northern Diver’.

As a biologist, Dr. Paruk aims to get as much information as he can: he’ll measure wing surface area, webbing width, body weight, bill length… anything you can think of, Dr. Paruk has studied it. These factors are very important in the context of natural selection: a loon's behaviors, traits, and anatomy all determine its survival and reproduction. A loon’s foraging behavior directly impacts its survival. Foraging behavior refers to all methods in which an organism acquires and uses energy and nutrients. When it comes to reproduction, loons are very vigilant and aggressive protectors. During their incubation cycle loons are highly aggressive and will attack other loons to protect their territory: half of the loon skeletons Dr. Paruk studied had sternal punctures from being attacked by other loons.

Common loons have existed for over one million years, but there are five types of loons in the United States. During Tuesday Group presentation Dr. Paruk focused special attention on the loons from New England and the loons from Minnesota/Wisconsin. When loons migrate, they go to the nearest oceanic body; for loons in New England, it’s east to the Atlantic Ocean - for loons in Minnesota and Wisconsin, it’s straight south to the Gulf of Mexico. These are two very different distances with very different requirements for travel. Due to this, the Minnesota/Wisconsin loons are 35% smaller than the New England loons. This relates to ‘fuel efficiency’ in a way: smaller objects are more aerodynamic and lighter, aka made for longer distances. New England loons are much larger than Minnesota/Wisconsin loons for shorter migrations and having a bigger build ensures the ability to protect territory. Loon wings are 20% narrower compared to their bird counterparts because loons need to be hydrodynamic instead of aerodynamic. Loons do most of their feeding, traveling, and defending in the water. They actually have difficulty taking flight, sometimes you’ll see them taking off for the length of a couple soccer fields.

Dr. Paruk noted some of his latest and greatest findings, which he features in his book. During Tuesday's group he noted that he and people he’s worked with over the years successfully color banded over 9,000 loons over 30 years. Color banding is super important for data, and Dr. Paruk has a LOT of data: He found that loons have a 92% annual survival rate, and an 80% territory rate. 85% of the time loons go back to annual spots for winter. The oldest loon Dr. Paruk researched was around 35 years old! When the population of loons is weakened, it is hard for them to recover due to females not having a first breed until they are around 6-7 years old, and males wait until around 5-6 years. Interestingly, loons do not actually mate for life, and the average duration of a pair bond is around 6 years. When swimming, loons consistently go 150 feet deep and can go down to 200 feet deep! Loons can fly up to 75 mph, but only with constant flapping as they cannot soar like other birds. There are more loons in Minnesota than in the lower 48 states combined (not including Wisconsin).

In Loon Lessons Dr. Paruk notes many personal stories from his time in the field, and during Tuesday Group he recalled a story from January 2012 in the Gulf of Mexico. He went right after one of the BP oil spills, where they pulled out 900 loons from the area. Oil affects loons in two ways: the oil makes it hard for loons to shed their built up salt concentrates, and the oil disrupts the ability for feathers to trap air close to the body. As unfortunate as the scene was, James talked about a naturally beautiful experience from his time there: he witnessed a loon working with a dolphin to get fish. The dolphin would guide the fish closer to shore for easy snacking, and the loon would follow in the dolphin’s wake to catch any rogue fish. Dr. Paruk said “[it’s as if the]... loon was aware of what the dolphin was trying to accomplish” and joined in on the feeding.

On June 14, Dr. Paruk hosted Nature Night at MN North - Vermilion campus, where he gave another insightful presentation on his writing of Loon Lessons. He had so many amazing resources including books and pamphlets laid out for us to get more information about nature in general, not just about loons. Dr. Paruk, although a LOONatic, is an active outdoorsman and has a lot of knowledge to share.

On June 15 in the early morning, Dr. Paruk led a guided tour with the Ely Field Naturalists program to watch loons in their natural habitat. We started at the Miners Lake boat landing and Dr. Paruk and Bill Tefft set up telescopes for better and more detailed viewing; never in my life have I observed a loon so closely! Dr. Paruk informed us of every move the loon made and why, the reasons for the loons body design, and how to properly observe loons to find the nest. During this time of year, "it's not uncommon for incubation to be happening right now", Paruk shared. Incubation refers to nesting loons, and finding them on the water can be difficult. Sherry noted that loons are very sneaky when retreating to their nest, sometimes they’ll dive under the water to get to their nesting spot if they feel as though something is following them. Due to this, when watching loons (or any animal) you want to make sure you are far enough away that your presence doesn’t interfere with the loon’s natural behaviors. As you watch the loon, notice when it starts swimming closer to the shore without foraging - once it gets up on land, you know where the nest is. Because of the loons body design, they are not proficient on land and become quite vulnerable; this is why when they go onto shore, it is a clear indication of the nest being in that area. Most likely you’ll see a pair switch nesting watches, as one hops off their shift the other hops on.

As you go about Ely and into the BWCAW, keep an eye open for loons! They’re such a unique species and getting to live somewhere where loons are visible and common is such a privilege. The opportunity to meet with Dr. Paruk and learn about these loons is an experience I never would have guessed I would get, and living in Ely provides these opportunities constantly. We are very thankful to have a community with so many events and activities that are so inclusive and learning based, and we are thankful that it attracts people such as Dr. Paruk to give us his time and knowledge in an interactive way. We hope you will join Tuesday Group next week for more community togetherness and education!

To learn more about Dr. Paruk’s work and his book:

Click HERE to visit his website

Click HERE to check out his Instagram

Steve Engel took some amazing videos of the experiences with Dr. Paruk and posted them on his youtube! Here are a few listed, check out these videos and more on his channel:

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