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DWR hosts Loon Watch, April 5

Vernal — A unique feathered flyer — known for its wailing, yodel-like call — stops in northeastern Utah every spring.

You can see and maybe even hear loons at the annual Loon Watch.

You can see and maybe even hear loons at the annual Loon Watch.

Photo by Ron Stewart

You can learn more about the bird on April 5, as the Division of Wildlife Resources hosts its annual Steinaker Loon Watch.

The free wildlife viewing event runs from 9 a.m. to noon at Steinaker State Park. The park, which includes Steinaker Reservoir, is just off US Highway 191, about five miles north of Vernal.

Ron Stewart, the DWR conservation outreach manager who started the event, says the Loon Watch will happen at one of the US 191 pull-outs on the east side of the reservoir. "We'll have binoculars and spotting scopes available to help you see, learn about and enjoy these unique birds," he says. "Information about loons will also be available."

Stewart says loons eat mostly fish. But he and DWR biologists have also seen them eat crayfish, which seems to be a major part of their diet in the spring. "With a bit of cooperation from the birds," he says, "we should be able to see them feeding on crayfish and possibly minnows in the shallows. And, if we're lucky, we might even hear them call."

Stewart has watched common loons on waters in northeastern Utah for more than 25 years. During a stop at Steinaker a few years ago, he counted more than 50 birds at a single time. The idea for a wildlife viewing event was planted.

"A migratory population of loons passes through the Uinta Basin every spring," Stewart says. "They've been fairly consistent, arriving just after ice-off."

Stewart says more than 200 loons have been seen on different reservoirs in the basin on a single day. Steinaker Reservoir seems to be a hotspot, with more than 60 loons spotted on it at the same time.

"Hopefully," Stewart says, "they'll be there this year for our Loon Watch."

Named for their awkwardness when walking, loons are superb swimmers. They are at home on or under the water. They use land only during their nesting season.

There are five loon species. The second largest, the common loon, migrates through Utah on its way north in the spring and on its way back to coastal destinations in the fall.

For more information about the Loon Watch, call the DWR's Northeastern Region office at 435-781-9453.

From Utah, the loons continue north

Each spring, common loons travel to the remote, freshwater lakes and ponds in the far northern states and Canada. There, loons breed and spend the summer raising their young.

When they arrive in the north, the loons stake out and defend breeding and foraging territories. These territories can be 60 to 200 acres in size. The male chooses a nest site and begins construction using reeds, grasses and other wetland plants. When the female joins him, courting begins. Loon pairs will mate and nest together for years. If one fails to arrive on the nesting grounds, though, the other loon will find a new partner.

The female lays up to three eggs, which both parents care for. The eggs incubate for 28 days before hatching. Soon after the chicks are born, the pair leads them from the nest into the water. The chicks' fuzzy down floats them high in the water, and they soon learn to take shelter and nap on their parents' backs. In rough, nasty weather, the parents may temporarily lead chicks onto the shore, where they can cuddle beneath their parents for warmth.

The parents spend two to three months teaching the chicks to survive. Once the chicks learn to fly, the adults generally leave, relocating to a larger lake. For a month or so, the chicks fend for themselves before leaving for larger waters. Chicks often join adults for the migration south. Others travel south by themselves or with other chicks.

In the fall, western common loons migrate to the Pacific Ocean and winter along the coasts of North America, from Alaska to central Mexico. The eastern birds migrate to the Atlantic Coast from Canada. Their destinations include Florida, the Gulf Coast and Mexico, where they winter until their spring migration north. The chicks will spend the next five to seven years along the coastline, until they mature. Some studies show returning young will find the nursery areas where they were born and will often nest within a few miles of where they were raised.

Because of declining populations, many northern states have put the species on watch lists. Declining populations are generally attributed to human-caused water pollution, mercury and lead poisoning, pesticides, oil spills, loss of habitat and disturbances from new developments and water uses, such as boating.

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