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Maanum shares story of loon project

A wildlife photographer, writer and volunteer tells how local volunteers have been tracking and supporting the success of the loon population on Mantrap Lake.

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Steve Maanum kids with the crowd about a picture of a loon that appears to be laughing. Actually, he said, the loon was looking up at an eagle flying overhead. Maanum gave a presentation Monday at the Nevis Senior Center about the Mantrap Lake Loon Management Plan. (Robin Fish/Enterprise)

Wildlife photographer, writer and volunteer Steve Maanum told a crowd about the Mantrap Lake Loon Management Plan Monday at the Nevis Senior Center.

Lakeshore residents “decided in the 1980s that we want to learn about our loons and protect them if we can,” he said.

The 1,600-acre lake is a prime spot to study loons and other wildlife, with a profusion of bays and points largely surrounded by undeveloped land. This layout provided ample territory for the 24 nesting pairs observed there this spring, including 19 manmade rafts and five natural nests.

Starting from a photographer’s perspective, Maanum shared images of the loons’ mating plumage, their change to drab colors for their winter migration south, and the differences in appearance between juveniles and adults.

Unlike most birds, Maanum noted, loons have solid bones, making it harder for them to lift off from the water. He joked about a male loon defeated in a courtship challenge running a quarter-mile on top of the water and saying to itself, “I shouldn’t have eaten that last fish.”

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Maanum discussed loons’ migration patterns, mating and brooding behavior and aggressive defense of their territory. He also brought pictures of a rare instance of a loon family adopting a mallard duckling.

Mantrap Lake loon studies have helped disprove some long-held beliefs about loon behavior, he said. For example, the same mating pair do not necessarily bond for life; juveniles do not always return to their native lake after spending their first couple winters down south; loons do not always follow the same migration route; and re-nesting mother loons sometimes lay two new eggs after losing a first pair, though one is more typical.

Maanum shared memories and images of research projects on Mantrap Lake, including a visit by National Geographic in 2007 and the Smithsonian this spring. Researchers measured the birds and tagged them with identifying bands, radio transmitters and GPS trackers.

“It was so much fun to watch the care those researchers take of those animals,” he said.

He described his own delicate procedures for interacting with the large, potentially dangerous birds. “I try not to cause a separation of the parents and chicks,” he said.

Maanum also talked about Mantrap volunteers’ efforts to provide rafts for nesting pairs of loons and to make regular counts of eggs, chicks, juveniles and loons on the lake. They check on nesting pairs in their donated jon boat, whimsically named “The Loon Boat,” and set out cameras to observe the birds’ nesting behavior.

The group’s statistics suggest that results of the raft-borne nests are more successful than natural nests, due in large part to predators.

“I hope we never get to the point where they use all the rafts and no natural nests,” said Maanum, though he added, “Natural nests tend to be the ones that lose eggs.”

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He provided pictures of the damage done to loon eggs by various predators, including raccoons, otters, mink, northerns, muskies, eagles, crows, ravens, gulls and snapping turtles.

Other hazards to the birds’ chances of success include biting black flies – which can lead them to abandon their nest – as well as extreme weather, lead weights, shotgun pellets, fishermen casting too close to loon nests, botulism in Lake Michigan and red tide in the Gulf of Mexico.

The big, powerful birds give as good as they get. Maanum showed shots of loons fighting with other birds trespassing on their territory, killing ducklings found near their nest, diving deep to catch fish and swallowing northern pike whole.

After reading a poem he wrote about loons, Maanum concluded with a quote from “Silent Spring” author Rachel Carson that summed up his hopes for wildlife study and conservation: “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”

Robin Fish is a staff reporter at the Park Rapids Enterprise. Contact him at rfish@parkrapidsenterprise.com or 218-252-3053.
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