Loon Ranger keeps watch on Silver Lake’s birds

Michelle Merlin
Traverse City Record-Eagle

Traverse City — Sherry McNamara is Silver Lake’s Loon Ranger, a title she wears with pride.

McNamara lives on the lake southwest of Traverse City and keeps a close eye on a mating pair of loons that nest on Silver Lake’s islands each year. She watches while chicks leave the nest to perch on their parents’ backs and as their baby fluff turns to adult plumage.

“People who live on the lake and see loons really always fall in love with them. They enjoy the sound they make, they enjoy watching when they have chicks,” McNamara said. “It’s really a pleasure to watch them interact with each other.”

But that pleasure turns to panic on more occasions than McNamara and other fans of the Great Lakes diving bird care to see. McNamara tries to ward off boaters and even swimmers who get too close to the vulnerable young birds, and too often she’s seen boats zoom right over them.

It’s not as much of a problem for adult birds, which can duck into the water, but baby loons are at risk because it takes time to develop that skill.

“It’s a shame when you see them sitting there and getting hurt for no reason,” McNamara said.

She wants to educate lake visitors about how to behave around loons and their chicks. McNamara said boaters should be more aware of the birds, which are considered a threatened species in Michigan. She recommends anyone who hears a warning sound from the birds back away and leave them alone.

“People are either too busy watching the shoreline or looking at houses and not paying attention to what’s in front of their boat,” McNamara said.

Recently, the birds captured the attention of lake residents when one emitted a grief-stricken sound unlike its usual yodel, hoot or tremolo.

McNamara rushed outside to observe what appeared to be a loon struggle against what she thought was a buoy. But she realized the buoy more likely was an upturned baby loon that the adult was biting and slapping. The young bird died.

“It was just heart-wrenching,” McNamara said. “I had nightmares that night.”

She said neighbors initially thought a boat ran over the loon chick and killed it, but now she thinks it was killed by another adult bird. The baby bird’s body was sent to a state Department of Natural Resources lab to determine the cause of death.

Loons nest on land near the edge of a lake and could be disturbed by high or low water, which could either wash out the nest or leave it high and dry. Loons have legs toward the back of their bodies that are excellent for swimming, but make for ungainly land travel.

“They can’t get up and walk around when they’re on dry land; they’re mostly pushing themselves forward with their feet because they spend so much time on the water,” said Karen Cleveland, a DNR all-bird specialist. “They’re very vulnerable when they’re on dry land.”

Adult loons will leave the nest to ward off trespassers, leaving their eggs or chicks vulnerable to predators like eagles and other animals. Once chicks are about a week old they’ll ride on parents backs or tuck under their wing.

Kevin Kenow, a research wildlife biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, said it’s not unheard of for “rogue” loons to attack babies.

“It’s getting into the dark side of the loon,” Kenow said.