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Everyday Minnesotans help protect state’s treasure: the loon

The DNR calls upon a dedicated group of volunteers to track and study Minnesota's state bird.

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Minn. — Tucked in the woods just north of Duluth, Jacobs Lake covers less than 100 acres, but resident Nancy Jordan’s work here has made a sizeable contribution to supporting Minnesota’s 12,000 loons, the largest statewide population in the Lower 48.

On a breezy mid-August day, Jordan takes a seat in her kayak and scoots the boat inch by inch onto the lake where she can get what might be called a bird’s-eye view.

“When the loons are nesting, I try very hard, in fact, I never get real close to the nest because that’s very upsetting for them,” she explains.

Jordan should know; she has been part of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Loon Watcher Survey for 29 years, a program intended to help protect and maintain the state’s loons. But following the pandemic, the program needs more volunteers like Jordan.

This summer, as in the past, a pair of loons nested at Jacobs Lake, Jordan says. This year’s nest was located on a small pile of rocks and tall grass in the middle of the lake.

“We call it loon island, but there really isn’t a name for it. But to me, it’s loon island,” Jordan says.

Loon island lived up to its name this summer; a chick was born.

“I love the loons, and I worry about them, and I love it when they have babies,” Jordan says.

But Jordan is more than a loon lover; in her role with the DNR’s Loon Watcher Survey, she collects data on nesting locations, births, and even deaths. This year’s chick did not make it, falling victim to another lake resident, an eagle.

“They’re good hunters, and they’re beautiful birds, too. So, they also are exciting to watch, I guess, but I was very mad at the eagle this year,” Jordan recalls.

Jordan’s passion to protect and preserve the loon is welcome by the DNR.

“Nancy is kind of, I would say, the type of person who our program has been built upon,” says Andrew Herberg, coordinator, Loon Watcher Survey, Minnesota DNR.

The survey began in 1979 with 56 volunteers, watching loons on 73 lakes. By 2018, it had grown to some 300 volunteers on almost 400 lakes. But after a one-year hiatus in the survey and the pandemic, volunteers are down to 190 on around 200 lakes in 2021.

Herberg wants more volunteers for more data and more insight in the quest to protect and maintain loons.

“I would say that our volunteers are able to observe and capture data on things that we just don’t have the time and manpower to be able to observe in a given year,” Herberg says.

Jordan welcomes reinforcements.

“I encourage anybody who lives in Minnesota, and loves the water, and loves the loons, and loves the environment, and is worried about climate change to get involved,” Jordan says.

Beyond collecting the current year’s data, Jordan thinks about the future on Jacobs Lake.

“Every year in the spring, I worry about did enough loons survive, going down to the Gulf of Mexico where they winter? Did they survive enough to come back? And will they come back here to our lake?” Jordan wonders out loud.

When they return, Jordan does her part to provide the answers about Minnesota’s state bird.

If you want to join Jordan in the Loon Watcher Survey, contact LoonWatcherSurvey.dnr@state.mn.us.