The people of the Upper Midwest were blessed with many natural wonders, including an abundance of lakes and wildlife.
This is one of the main reasons the region has a “cabin culture” that has lasted for generations.
If one species can symbolize our love for northern waters, it’s the common loon.
From its haunting vocalizations to its striking black and white plumage to its red eyes and the wild areas it prefers to live, the bird belies its name – it is extraordinary in every way.
A recent encounter captured by a photographer from Minnesota added a new wonder to the loonie legend.
Scott and Anne Rykken of St. Paul are typical of many in our area. They grew up traveling to the lakes with their families fishing, boating, swimming and the rest that makes life so great in the Northwoods.
In 2001, the couple bought a cabin on Lake Miltona near Alexandria, Minnesota, which was owned by Anne’s family.
The 6,000 acre lake has always had a population of loons. But reports of the decline in loon numbers have raised concerns for the birds and launched efforts to help the species’ breeding and recruitment.
Three years ago, another cabin owner in Miltona asked the Rykkens if they would agree to set up a loons nesting platform near their property.
Man-made structures provide a flat, floating offshore site for birds to lay and incubate their eggs. Because platforms float, they can prevent a nest from being submerged by boat wakes or a natural rise in water level.
And since they’re not on or adjacent to land, they help reduce predation by animals such as raccoons.
“I thought it was worth it,” said Scott, 64. We love loons and we would do anything to help them.
The installation was a success from the start.
The Rykkens place the structure far enough from their dock that they won’t disturb the loons when they get out of their boats but can still see it from their cabin.
Scott Rykken is a retired science teacher who started photographing as a hobby several years ago. Her skills with the camera helped the couple document loons’ activities.
Loons nested on the platform and successfully hatched chicks in 2019 and 2020. And this year they’re back; the nest contains two eggs.
He also attracted other wild animals.
Rykken said it has become common to see turtles climbing up the structure to sunbathe.
And this year, for the first time, muskrats started using the platform. Rodents usually bring vegetation to the structure and hang around while they eat.
Either way, Rykken said, the loonie has looked unfazed by the company.
Could the iconic bird even welcome him?
What happened last Sunday made Rykken rush to his camera.
As Scott and Anne watched from their cabin, the nesting structure began a mini Noah’s Ark.
As “Lucy,” the name given by the Rykkens to the female loon, sat on her eggs, a muskrat climbed aboard the platform and sat down munching on reeds. Then a painted turtle climbed up to the loon’s tail.
The reptile apparently wasn’t content with just being out of the water. He wanted high ground. Or in this case, a feathered perch.
Over the next few minutes, the Rykkens could hardly believe their eyes as the turtle struggled to climb onto the loon’s back.
At one point it started to slide to the side of the bird, Scott Rykken said, and the loonie moved its right wing as if to catch it.
“Simply amazing,” Rykken said. “It was like his instincts had just kicked in, like he had a chick on his back.”
The turtle eventually reached the upper back of the loon and exposed itself to the sun.
Rykken recorded the events with his digital camera.
“I didn’t think anyone would believe us if we didn’t have pictures,” Rykken said. “It was amazing.”
In one of their endearing behaviors, loons carry their young chicks on their backs. The strategy helps keep their offspring warm and safe from predators, said Walter Piper, a loon researcher at Chapman University and founder of the Loonie project, a long-term study of Wisconsin loons that extends to Minnesota.
Piper, who has seen thousands of nesting loons in the Upper Midwest, has never seen a turtle on a dive.
“I saw a lot of black flies on loons, but never another vertebrate,” said Piper, who was sent a copy of Rykken’s image of the wildlife gathering on the nesting platform. . “It was a first for me.”
Piper said the image sparked discussion among “loons” and someone in Montana allegedly saw a turtle crawling on top of a loon. But needless to say, it’s very, very rare.
“Certainly the muskrat that is out there makes it a comedic assortment of native species,” Piper said. “It’s definitely not something you see every day, but since the three species aren’t competing, it helps us make sense of it.”
Nesting platforms are more than a meeting place for aquatic fauna. They are very beneficial for the production of loons.
A 2002 study published by Piper and colleagues, including Mike Meyers, a retired Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources researcher, found that, compared to natural nesting sites, platforms increased loons hatching success by 69% and flight success by 32%, apparently thanks to a reduction in predation of mammalian eggs.
A well-managed effort to introduce nesting platforms could be a viable strategy to help maintain threatened populations, the researchers concluded.
Rykken posted his unique photo on Facebook; it went viral over the past week.
This is not the first time that a loon has made the headlines because it has another species on its back.
In 2019, a Wisconsin a pair of loons adopted a young mallard and was photographed carrying and caring for the duckling on a lake in Oneida County.
Memorial Day weekend 2021 also brought other exciting news on loons.
Monday, Ryan Brady from Washburn and two friends spotted an arctic loon in Lake Superior near Herbster. This was the first documented sighting of the species in Wisconsin.
The Rykkens returned to their home in St. Paul after Memorial Day weekend. When they venture north to the hut in the next few days, Scott Rykken said the nesting platform will be one of the first things they will check out.
“Lucy seemed to take charge,” Rykken said. “We will be fascinated to see what happens next. After what we saw last Sunday, I don’t think anything can surprise us now.”