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Trapped loon on northern Minnesota lake capturing worldwide attention

Loon lovers hope for a happy ending as the young loon struggles to elude eagles and find enough room to take off.

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A pair of Nevis firefighters head out on the ice Dec. 8, 2021 to try reaching Gilligan, secured to the shore by a 1,000 feet of rope. After 30 minutes of trying to catch the trapped loon in a net, they gave up in order to avoid stressing and weakening it too much. Contributed / Debbie Center
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PARK RAPIDS, Minn. — Loon lovers from around the world are cheering for “Gilligan,” a young loon who is still swimming in open water on the Crow Wing chain of lakes, near Nevis, Minnesota, weeks after the other loons migrated to spend the winter in warm waters down south.

This plucky bird has captured the attention of people who are hoping for a happy ending to his story.

Debbie Center has been coordinating efforts to rescue the stranded loon after receiving a Facebook message from a friend on a lake in the Crow Wing chain in late November about the loon’s plight.

“I am crazy about wildlife here and especially loons,” said Center, who moved to the area from Colorado in 2014. “Loons just really intrigue me. They’re the quintessential symbol of Northwoods life. When they call, it just gets to me. I started researching loons, wanting to learn more about them.”

The loon’s plight has also captured the attention of people around the world through Center’s Facebook page “Loony for Loons,” which has 7,000 followers.

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“People all over the world are following this,” she said. “It’s a good human interest story. People are saying ‘Come on Gilligan, get out of there.’ I think with all of the sadness that’s been going on over the last two years people are so hungry for a happy ending. I think this is why this has gained so much attention. It’s bringing people together when the world is so divided.”

Rescue attempted

An attempt to rescue the loon earlier this week was not successful.

Three members of the Nevis Fire and Rescue attempted the rescue, with assistance from two staff members from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and help from the National Loon Center.

“They were right next to the loon, but the opening in the ice, they said, is 25 feet in diameter,” Center explained. “That gives way too many escape routes to the loon that thinks you’re there to kill it. The loon would pop up for just a couple of seconds to grab a gulp of air and then dive back down. That’s their defense mechanism.”

After working for about 35 minutes to try and capture the loon, Center said a member of the Nevis Fire and Rescue group told her to keep an eye on the diameter of the hole in the ice and let them know when it is smaller and they may attempt another rescue.

According to Linda and Kevin Grenzer, loon experts in Wisconsin that Center contacted, the area of open water needs to be 10 feet in diameter or less in order for a successful rescue. “They’ve rescued lots of loons,” Center said. “But even they, as experts, wouldn’t be able to catch the loon until the hole gets smaller. I’m monitoring the hole, and if it gets small enough they would certainly consider coming up here to do that rescue.

“The challenging thing is that Gilligan is 1,000 feet off shore, so when I zoom in with my camera I can’t tell the size of the hole. I’m gauging it from the distance the loon swims doing laps to keep agitating the water so it doesn’t freeze shut.”

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Center goes over to her friend’s property daily to check on the loon.

“We thought of using a drone for monitoring the size of the hole in the ice, but the person we know who has a drone said it doesn’t work properly below 25 degrees,” she said. “If someone has a drone that works in colder temps, we’d sure appreciate them reaching out to help us get a better idea of what’s going on.”

Hoping for the best

Center said if the loon can be captured, the plan is to bring it to the Wildlife Rehab Center in Roseville.

“I talked with them on the phone the other day, and they said they’ve got world-renowned lead testing and treating equipment if that’s needed,” she said. “They have a network where, if the loon is releasable, they can transport him down to Florida for release to live out his life. But they weren’t able to catch him.”

Center said the loon appears to be healthy. “I talked to Lori Naumann from the DNR through Facebook, and she said after watching the videos he appeared healthy and is maybe a late hatch who wasn’t ready to migrate and then the lake froze over,” she said. “The juveniles always leave later than the adults. The adults usually leave in September but the juveniles don’t leave until just before the lake freezes over. They stay down south for a few years before they are mature enough to return north.”

Loons need at least 100 feet of open water to take off and fly. With warmer weather in the forecast, Center said the lake could possibly open up enough for the loon to take off although that is unlikely to happen this late in the year.

Temperatures in the Nevis area are expected to top out in the high 30s Sunday through Wednesday before a cold snap arrives.

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“If it opens even more but not enough for the loon to take off, that would make rescue attempts even more difficult,” she said. “With springs and a river in the middle of the lake, that contributes to danger for the rescuers too.”

Center said she wonders if it is possible that if the winter is mild and open water remains, the loon could winter on the lake.

“Someone shared a comment that they had heard of loons wintering over on Lake Superior,” she said. “They said the loon’s closest relative is the penguin, so they’re built for cold weather. We’ve gone below zero several nights now, and Gilligan’s still with us.”

The National Loon Center in Cross Lake is in the process of getting a loon rescue team started. “They’ve been really interested in this story and learning what works and what doesn’t,” she said.

Loon rescues have been successful in other areas of the state.

“There was a loon that got rescued last night in Cambridge north of the Cities, but that loon was 10 feet off shore and they were able to wade out and did a night rescue, blinding the loon with a high powered searchlight to keep it from diving so they could grab it,” she said.

Meanwhile, she said she is hoping Gilligan will be able to survive the eagles that have been watching his movements.

“Eagles in the area have been very interested in the loon as well, attempting to catch it,” she said. “So far it has been able to dive and escape. But if that hole freezes solid, then he’s eagle food.”

Lorie Skarpness has lived in the Park Rapids area since 1997 and has been writing for the Park Rapids Enterprise since 2017. She enjoys writing features about the people and wildlife who call the north woods home.
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