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For the love of loons

Park Rapids volunteer goes above and beyond to support state bird conservation efforts

By Craig Bihrle

On a Monday afternoon in late April, in defying temperatures in the high 30s and a light drizzle persisting after a steady morning rain, Sharon Natzel was preparing for a canoe outing.

Sharon Natzel, a loon program volunteer from Park Rapids, tows a loon nesting platform on a chilly day in late April. Photo by Craig Bihrle

An avid paddler of kayaks and canoes under normal weather conditions, she might have picked a different day if simple recreation was her purpose, but on this day she was on a mission, with its roots dating back to her childhood in this same Minnesota lake country.

“When I was a kid we had 4-H projects and one of them was on wildlife,” said Natzel. “I researched loons and pileated woodpeckers … they were so ancient, and the loons couldn’t really walk on land. That was really fascinating.”

It’s a fascination that’s still at heart on this gray, chilly day as Natzel pushes the canoe from shore, towing behind a nesting platform designed to contribute to loon conservation efforts in the Park Rapids and Hubbard County area.

“For a long time, people would ask me ‘what are you going to do when you retire?’” Natzel said. “And I’d say, ‘I’m going to count loons.’ I didn’t even know there was a loon program at the time, but here I am.”

“Here” was a small lake north of Nevis that is part of a three-year trial so see if placement of an artificial nesting platform would contribute to getting a pair of loons to successfully nest on the lake. The artificial nesting platforms (ANP) are made of PVC pipe and Styrofoam, then covered with lakeside grasses and mud to imitate natural loon nesting sites. Once the platform was in place, Natzel continued to paddle around the lake, using binoculars to “count” any loons that might eventually show an interest in the new platform.

It’s a cold Monday effort because the window of time for placing the artificial nest was the last week in April, and that Monday was Natzel’s only available day for the week.

Placement of platforms and monitoring loon activity are part of several programs administered by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in much of Minnesota’s lake country.

Under the right circumstances, platforms can help loon nesting efforts, but interested people should consult with DNR specialists before setting them out. Photo by Craig Bihrle

The Loon Watcher Survey is a long-running community science project in which volunteers record loon observations such as nest locations, nesting pairs, egg hatching success, and survival of young to adulthood. This survey can take place on any lake, and volunteers count loons and young and record other observations once a month from May through August.

The Minnesota Loon Monitoring Program is somewhat different in that the surveys generally involve one day of observations during a 10-day period covering late June and early July. This project is focused on specific lakes and regions, and many lakes in Becker and Otter Tail counties are part of this effort.

Then there’s the Minnesota Loon Restoration Project, which encompasses eight counties in north central Minnesota, including Hubbard, Cass, Becker, Beltrami, Clearwater, Crow Wing, Itasca and Aitkin. It also involves state, federal and local government agencies and organizations, and includes not just population monitoring activities, but also habitat management, oversight of ANP programs, potential critical lakeshore loon habitat acquisition and expanded public engagement efforts.

All these programs rely heavily on volunteers to make them successful, according to Jayden Jech, loon specialist for the DNR’s Nongame Wildlife Program. “Minnesotans really value the loons,” Jech said, “and there’s a lot of excitement for the opportunity to participate… it brings people together and really sparks conservation.”

Natzel, who lives on Long Lake near Park Rapids, is a long-time volunteer for the Long Lake Area Association, and she also serves as current president of the Hubbard County Coalition of Lake Associations. She’s just one of dozens, and perhaps hundreds of people in lake country, many of whom are retired seniors, contributing their talents to preserving the lake country environment.

Loon surveyors count both adults and young as part of their volunteer efforts. Photo by Craig Bihrle

Bob Berdahl, who lives on Potato Lake northeast of Park Rapids, is another. He’s been involved off and on with the Potato Lake Association’s loon program for nearly 20 years, and now serves as the lake’s “loon liaison,” coordinating the monitoring and artificial platform efforts of another half-dozen volunteers on various parts of the lake.

Retiree Charlie Garr, also of Long Lake, is another long-time loon volunteer who happens to have a view of a loon nesting platform, albeit aided by binoculars, from the lakeside deck of his home. He’s what’s called a “sponsor” of the platform, and has had nesting loons use it for the last 10 years. “We’ve spent a lot of time tinkering with that platform to make it work better for loons,” Garr said. “It does take a commitment to maintain it … but it goes hand in hand with my interest in fishing, hunting, conservation and the outdoors.”

That same passion for the outdoors has kept Berdahl involved for nearly two decades as well. Early on in his efforts at Potato Lake, he went along on a survey of loon nests on Big Mantrap Lake, spending a day in a small boat helping count eggs. “I could have gone on an African safari that day and it wouldn’t have been more special,” Berdahl recalled. “Being able to do something for the loons, that’s a great thing.”

Anyone interested in volunteering to do great things for loons can email for more information.


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