Nantucket Sleigh Ride Via Loon

Loons dancing in the morning mist on Tuscarora Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. (Photo taken by me in the mid-1980s.)

Loons dancing in the morning mist on Tuscarora Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. (Photo taken by me in the mid-1980s.)

Strange things happen sometimes in the Northwoods – this land where humans and animals live so near each other. When I was young (8? 9?) my family went fishing on a lake north of Duluth. While casting our lines, we noticed a loon swimming nearby, calling in an unusual manner. As outdoorsy types, we had heard many loons before, but this one sounded more plaintive than normal, like it was in distress.

The loon kept circling — swimming near us, which was also odd for this rather stand-offish species. My dad said something like, “I think that loon needs help,” so we canoed toward it. Soon we saw the problem. A homemade fishing pole crafted from a large branch trailed about fifteen feet behind the bird. My dad grabbed the pole, thinking he could just pull the loon toward us and find where the fishing hook was lodged in it.

Ha! He underestimated the power of the loon. Upon feeling the tug of the line, the loon took off and dove underwater. My dad kept his grip on the pole, and the loon proceeded to pull our canoe (and the three or four of us in it) through the water at a good clip.

Now, a Nantucket sleigh ride is what used to happen to whalers after they harpooned a whale. The whale would take off, towing the whaling boat and its occupants through the sea until the whale tired and surfaced. That’s what was happening to us, only our whale was a loon.

Soon the loon tired and my dad was able to pull it close enough to capture in his gloved hands. This in itself was a feat of daring. Adult loons are about the size of a goose, and their bills are long and sharp.

After my dad wrestled it onto his lap, we discovered the hook embedded in the bird’s neck. Imagine — all that force from our lake sleigh ride concentrated on such a fragile body part. But that hadn’t stopped the loon.

My brother handed my dad the pliers and he was able to remove the hook. We released the loon back into its watery home. As the loon departed, its call was different. Happier.

Was it saying thank you? I’d like to think so.

Jersey Shore Sojourn

Did you know that the United States has a national historic elephant landmark? It's in New Jersey, and her name is Lucy.

Did you know that the United States has a national historic elephant landmark? It’s in New Jersey, and her name is Lucy.

My impression of New Jersey turned inside out last week when I traveled there. Before that, my main experience with the state was gained through several extended stays in the Newark Airport (one overnight on a hard plastic chair) and from brief, accidental, distasteful viewings of the “Jersey Shore” TV show.

What I learned:

Hydrangeas are my new favorite flower. Two varieties are pictured here.

Hydrangeas are my new favorite flower. Two varieties are pictured here.

  • New Jersey is not an industry-strewn state. Nature abounds in the pine barrens, designated natural areas, wildlife sanctuaries, and even in the tangle of forest along the highway.
  • Hydrangeas are obviously New Jersey residents’ favorite flowers.
  • It can get hot there! My Minnesota blood was thinned by the 80- to 90-degree days. There’s even a native cactus.
  • Drivers are not allowed to pump their own gas at service stations according to state law.
  • Liquor is sold as “packaged goods” (which provides easy fodder for jokes among the dirty-minded).
  • The state is home to Lucy, a human-made, six-story elephant that serves as a national historic landmark.
  • Palm trees can grow in New Jersey. Although they are not native, certain species can survive, providing the last word in tropical ambiance for its beach-going residents.
  • Beach culture is alive and well on the Jersey Shore. Several times I had to shake myself and remember I wasn’t in California.
  • Although people can be crass by Minnesota standards, at least one person in New Jersey was pretty darn nice (ahem).
A clutch of four piping plover eggs seen through the fence that protects the nest.

A clutch of four piping plover eggs seen through the fence that protects the nest.

The highlight of the trip for a piping plover novelist like myself, was seeing plover nests, chicks, and adults. While my home of northern Minnesota hardly has any, the beaches of New Jersey are home to about 100 pairs of breeding plovers. These endangered shorebirds (reminiscent in looks to a killdeer, but much cuter) are monitored and protected by the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife and conservation groups like Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.

I also saw frolicking dolphins, horseshoe crabs, diamondback terrapin turtles returning to the sea from laying eggs, and bunches of other birds unusual to me.

If you ever get a chance to visit the Jersey Shore, don’t be scared off by its television-show namesake!

Why did the terrapin cross the road? To lay its eggs, of course! Here's one on her way back to sea.

Why did the terrapin cross the road? To lay its eggs, of course! Here’s one on her way back to sea.

Saving a Skyrat – Part 2


When my co-worker and I were debating whether to save the listless gull that appeared outside our office last week, she said something like, “Usually, I like to let nature take its course . . .” and I interjected, “But it’s often not nature that causes things like this, it’s humans.” I was remembering a gull I rescued many years ago that had been hit by a car.

As it turns out, although the gull at our office was put in distress by a natural process, the cause probably was us. As you may recall, when I brought the gull to the wildlife rehabilitation group, they said they thought the cause was a Vitamin B deficiency. (To be exact, a Vitamin B1 or thiamine deficiency.) They weren’t sure what was causing it, but suspected it had something to do with the gulls eating dead fish.

Back at the office, that got us thinking, especially after we learned the Wildwoods group had received three other gulls with the same problem that week, and after learning that two other co-workers had seen other gulls exhibiting the same symptoms: wing droop, loss of the ability to fly, and loss of the ability to “speak.”

Being of a scientific bent, we started researching the problem and came up with a paper published in 2009 about herring gulls and other birds in Europe that were dying of a thiamine deficiency. The researchers named the affliction “thiamine deficiency syndrome.”

In the paper, the researchers described the exact symptoms we were seeing: “The general course of this disease in full-grown individuals is difficulty in keeping the wings folded along the side of the body, inability to fly, inability to walk, and death. Other symptoms are tremor and seizures.” They said that the length of time between when a gull loses its ability to fly and death is 10-20 days. Turns out, this was the same paper that the Wildwoods people had discovered last year in an attempt to help more than a dozen gulls with the syndrome.

The researchers attributed the syndrome to “a causative agent(s) acting directly on the affected individual, and/or by insufficient transfer of thiamine between the trophic levels in the food web.” They cited an urgent need for investigation into the cause since bird populations in Europe were declining rapidly.

Putting together what we knew got us thinking: what kind of fish-related problem could cause a thiamine deficiency in gulls? I recalled Minnesota Sea Grant research from years ago about Great Lakes fish being low in Vitamin B1 due to a diet of smelt and alewives. Almost at the same time, my co-worker discovered similar research. Both smelt and alewives contain an enzyme that breaks down thiamine in the fish that eat them, which has caused documented problems in the lake trout, steelhead trout, brown trout, and salmon populations in the Great Lakes.

It makes sense that birds eating fish low in thiamine would become low in thiamine themselves. We didn’t find any research describing this problem in birds the U.S., but we didn’t do an exhaustive search. However, it sure seems like an interesting research project for some enterprising biologist.

It’s ironic that although the gulls are eating what they are supposed to (fish) versus an unhealthy diet of French fries, they are suffering. Remember the debate in the first paragraph about whether the cause is natural vs. human-made? Alewives and smelt are both non-native species introduced by humans into the Great Lakes. So the problem most likely is us, I hate to say.

A local reporter even did a story about the issue, which appeared on the front page of the Sunday Duluth News Tribune. (This story will be available for a week to non-subscribers.)

How is our office gull doing? The wildlife rehab folks report that it perked up after a thiamine shot. It had recovered enough for release the very next day. I am amazed that the solution was so simple, and amazed by what we learned in the process of saving what most folks around here consider as sky vermin.

Saving a Sky Rat

A Wildwoods worker inspects the "injured" gull.

A Wildwoods worker inspects the “injured” gull.

When a co-worker mentioned she spotted a wounded gull near our office yesterday, I knew I was in trouble. I’m a sucker for wanting to save injured wildlife, even if it’s a “sky rat,” which are far too abundant. And besides, we both work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has a gull as part of its logo. How could we just ignore it? Not to mention that I am the author of a novel about shorebirds. I could hardly be indifferent to its plight or my readers would revolt.

My co-worker (Mary) thought the gull’s wing might be broken and that it seemed listless. When we went outside to look for it, we couldn’t find it, but a short time later when I happened to look out my window, I saw the gull standing dejectedly on our office dock.

I alerted Mary, who in the meantime had called Wildwoods, a nonprofit local wildlife rehabilitation organization, to see if they would take the gull. They said they would, but that we would have to deliver it. They instructed Mary how to handle the gull, so that when it appeared again, she was ready.

Since I am squeamish about handling wild animals (I don’t even like unhooking the fish I catch), and since it was her “find,” I allowed Mary the honor of capturing the bird. She did so easily, and placed it in a box lined with newspaper. Upon this chance for close inspection, she identified it as a ring-billed gull.

Since Wildwoods was located on my way home, I volunteered to transport the bird. When the box was in the office, the bird was quiet. But once it got in my car, the gull started rustling around. I decided to try a classical radio station to soothe the savage beast. It worked!

I found the Wildwoods building and took the bird in. I was surprised at how weightless the box was. Upon inspecting the gull, the Wildwoods workers said they didn’t think it had any broken bones– instead, they suspected its listlessness might due to a Vitamin B deficiency. They said it’s a common problem due to their diets. Who knew birds could get vitamin deficiencies? They planned to give it a shot and to see if that helps.

If I receive any updates on the gull’s progress, I’ll let you know!

Making Piping Plovers Sexy

My second novel is coming out later this month. I’m happy to unveil the cover for you:

Layout 1

Plover Landing is an ecological-mystical-romance that I wrote for college-age readers and older. What’s an ecological-mystical-romance, you ask? It’s a genre I’d like to think that I created, which deals with endangered species, Native American mythology, and human-human, human-animal romance and connections.

Plover Landing is set in my hometown of Duluth, Minn., in 1995, and it’s a sequel to Eye of the Wolf. Novelists who haven’t been published yet might hate me for what I’m about to admit, but when my publisher suggested a sequel, I wasn’t that enthused. That’s because, between life’s distractions, the first novel took me seventeen years to write, then another couple years to publish.

The thought of doing that all over again was exhausting, although at least I wouldn’t have to spend time looking for a publisher. I was also exhausted from seventeen years of thinking about wolves, which are the animals I focus on in Eye of the Wolf. If I was going to survive a sequel, I needed to focus on a different endangered animal and environmental topic.

It just so happens I was working on a project to restore habitat along the shores of Lake Superior in hopes of encouraging an endangered shorebird to nest. Through that process, I had already learned a lot about piping plovers, so that became the focus of my sequel. Granted, plovers are not as sexy as wolves and they don’t have a handy supernatural being associated with them (like the wolves have werewolves), so I had to ponder how to work the mysticism into it. (But never fear, wolf aficionados, the wolves come into the story at the end.)

My writer’s group joked that I should write about plover zombies, but I did not take them up on that idea. (Smirk) Instead, I researched myths about plovers. While I couldn’t find any local myths, I did find an interesting and sexy Hawaiian myth about plovers, and I discovered a way to use it as the foundation of the story.

Even so, that wasn’t quite supernatural enough, so in addition to the heroine and hero from Eye of the Wolf (Melora St. James and Drew Tamsen), I introduced a new character, a boy named Demetri, who both helps the plovers and focuses readers’ attention on the issue of climate change. I feel strongly that the more integrated that issue is into mainstream media, especially through the use of storytelling, the more people will come to accept it as real.

Because I’d learned ways to encourage myself to write with my first novel, even though I had just as many distractions, Plover Landing only took two-and-a-half years to write. My publisher thinks it’s an even better story than the first and has hinted about the desire for another in the series. I created the ending of Plover Landing with openings for another story or so that it works as a finale. I don’t know. I’ll have to think about that one.

In any case, let the marketing begin! Speaking of which, if any of you are active on Goodreads, I have a giveaway for Plover Landing that’s active until July 15.