Head to head with Dr. Jim Paruk
“I have studied loons for almost 20 years. Am I passionate about them? Absolutely!"
Earthwatch scientist Dr. Jim Paruk, Director of the Center for Loon Conservation, shares insights from almost two decades of research into the lives of loons.
To me, loons embody the essence of “wilderness.” Loons are hunters; they are apex predators. It’s a tough life being at the top of the food chain. My spirit is drawn to those aspects of a loon that symbolize wilderness, independence and freedom.
I was sickened by the oil spill in the Gulf when it happened; I think we all were. I just wanted to do something. And for me, being a loon biologist, this is how I could get involved. The expedition offers people all over the world the chance to get involved now through Earthwatch. I’m also looking forward to working with other scientists down there so we can hopefully put a story together about how the Gulf ecosystem is faring since the spill. That way, people know that we’re out there paying attention, and providing assurance and accountability.
We need ‘seeing eyes’ - which is how the volunteers will contribute and be a part of it. I have worked with Earthwatch in the past, and my experience is that the volunteers are knowledgeable, bright, caring people who want to contribute. They often make great suggestions, and they bring their energy and enthusiasm to the project that keeps me going.
What we learned from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 is that it can take many years before we see the longer term impacts of the oil on wildlife populations. So the timing of this project is perfect. The volunteers won’t see any more oil slicks in the Gulf. There were so many dispersants used that the oil got into the water column and formed these aggregates called micelles, which are like little balls. A lot of these balls sank and got washed up onshore. The concern is that these dispersants could be toxic and affect fertility in animals. If the shellfish get exposed to them, and then small fish consume or get exposed to the shellfish, and then birds - including loons - eat the fish, the oil will turn up in the loons. So the effect of the oil moves up the food chain in that way.
It’s important to study loons in this area for a couple of reasons:
Firstly, the Gulf coast marks the southernmost place where you’re going to find loons. As an extreme limit of its range, the loons here may be more prone to disturbance from all kinds of chronic stressors in the environment - from the oil spill to outflow issues from the Mississippi River, and more. No one’s really taken a good look at loons in the Louisiana area.
Secondly, loons sit at the top of the food chain. There is a particular fish of interest that they’re probably eating: Gulf menhaden. Menhaden school by the millions, filter feed on phytoplankton, and have the potential to build up toxins in their tissues. In the case of the oil spill, these toxins would show up in their blood, and we’re going to be looking at that. So, being at the top of the food chain makes loons a perfect species to study to understand the impacts of the spill on the ecosystem as a whole.
The little that we do know about the winter ecology of loons comes from just a handful of studies. It’s difficult to study birds in the ocean. The field conditions can be challenging, and because loons are solitary some of the time, it’s tough to get a lot of data at once. That’s why Earthwatch volunteers will be so invaluable! There’s also a dose of serendipity involved in this kind of science. The reality is that a lot of science is driven by a few passionate individuals - and we haven’t had too many people focusing on it, certainly not in this study location.
This past winter I heard about a fish captain who had spent his whole life in the bay. He’s been a fishing guide for nearly 40 years and is a very observant and knowledgeable man. He told a loon researcher that he’s “never seen a loon once in his life” but, once the researcher pointed out a loon to him, he said, “Oh, that’s a loon?!”. It turns out he has seen them everywhere - he just didn’t know they were loons.
Earthwatch volunteers will be helping us to capture loons, which is always very exciting. It’s late at night, you’re on the ocean trying to catch these birds, and it can be an exciting moment. Holding these birds that typify wilderness is a very powerful experience for a volunteer. Touching a loon is like touching a grizzly bear. I mean, obviously it’s different in many ways, but it’s similar in the sense that the loon and the grizzly are both apex predators that typify wilderness. Also, it’s a really rich area; they’re going to see alligators, spoonbills, ibis—all sorts of cool animals!
My most memorable “loon moment” didn’t even directly involve a loon! When I ran a loon project with Earthwatch in the early 1990s, I met a great many people from all over the world. One of my favorite teams was comprised of students from Los Angeles - students who had never seen a loon or even flown on a plane, so it was a big deal that they came out to my project, which took place on a remote lake in northern Wisconsin. I saw the transformation of these young men and women through the course of the expedition. On a still, very quiet evening, I’d asked this one quiet student about her interests. Now keep in mind that this student was as quiet as they come. So I was surprised when she said, “I love to sing.” And she proceeded to belt out—and nail—that song “I will always love you” by Whitney Houston. It resonated across the lake like you wouldn’t believe!
- The Gulf of Mexico is actually sinking (geologically).
- Loons can dive more than 200 ft (61 m) below the surface of the water in search of food. They can stay underwater for five minutes.
- Common Loons are named for their clumsy, awkward appearance when walking on land.
- Their unusual cries vary from wails to tremolos to yodels. The calls are distinct to individuals and can be heard at great distances. Loon cries are most prevalent during breeding season as pairs aggressively defend their territories. Listen to a loon here!
- Most birds have hollow, light bones - but loons have solid bones.
- Loons need about 100-600 foot “runway” in order to take off because their bodies are heavy relative to their wing size (and they have solid bones). Once in the air, they can fly up to 75 miles per hour.
- The Common Loons in Maine are the heaviest in all of North America. A few large individuals weighed over 16 pounds!
- Loons can live to be 30 or more years old.