Late-spring snow storms and frozen lakes are causing problems for migrating loons across northern Wisconsin where, in some cases, they have fallen out of the sky onto roads, farm fields and other places from which they can't take off.
In Minnesota, grebes, a smaller water bird, also have been crashing on land where they, too, can't walk or take off.
Marge Gibson, director of the Raptor Education Center in Antigo, Wis., said her rehabilitation center has rescued 51 loons in the past two weeks, by far the most ever.
"We have reports of them just dropping out of the sky into cow pastures or trying to land on wet roadways that must look like water to them," Gibson said.
The problem is twofold, Gibson said. Late ice on many northern lakes has left loons with little or no place to land and take off. Meanwhile, late-season ice and snow storms in some cases have forced loons down where they normally never would land.
Loons and grebes are perfectly adapted for swimming and diving and taking off and landing on water. But, once grounded, loons are unable to take off. Their legs are too far back on their body for them to walk on land. With loons, a center "keel" on their body also makes it difficult for them to even crawl on land without listing.
Even if they land on small ponds they sometimes can't take off because they need a longer takeoff area, up to a quarter-mile in some cases.
Ice is melting off northern Wisconsin and Minnesota lakes about two weeks later than normal and more than a month later than last year.
"With most of the lakes in the north still frozen, it limits their options for landing. But in some cases they may not have had any options; they were just forced right down to the ground by the storm ... like an airplane icing up," Gibson said.
Gibson said the downed loons have come in from Langlade and Marathon counties and from near Hayward. The loons generally have been in decent shape, she said, but sometimes they need to be cleaned and fed before being released in large lakes to the south where the ice already has gone out.
Duluth-based Wildwoods Rehabilitation Center has rescued one loon but more grebes than they've ever handled before, said Farzad Farr, a wildlife rehabilitator at Wildwoods.
"We've been doing this seven or eight years now, and we've had maybe one or two grebes. This year, I've lost count. It's many more than a dozen," Farr said. "It's been a crazy spring with these water birds. ... We're getting calls from so far away that we can't go out, so we tell people how to release them if the bird isn't injured."
Peggy Farr, married to Farzad and also a wildlife rehabilitator, said grebes, like loons, migrate at night. With most lakes still frozen in the region, the birds apparently have been desperate for places to land, confusing dark, wet pavement as water.
"People are finding them in their yards, in parking lots, along roadways," Peggy Farr said. "This is unprecedented. ... We really need people to know that, if they don't help, these birds won't make it. They are helpless on land."
Peggy Farr and Gibson said anyone who finds a loon or grebe should be able to gently capture it and release it in a large body of water if it doesn't have obvious signs of injury, such as a broken wing or leg. They warned rescuers about the bird's sharp beak.
"It's not that hard to capture them. Just a throw a blanket or towel on them and put them in a box. But look out for that beak; it's a weapon," Gibson said. "But please tell people not to release them in a small pond. They need a lot of space to take off."
So far, the loon problem hasn't been common in Minnesota, said Carrol Henderson, nongame wildlife program supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
"We haven't had those reports in Minnesota. But if they have rescued 51 (in Wisconsin) there's probably a whole lot more that landed in the woods or other wild places that will never be found and will just die," Henderson said. "It's really an unusual and sad situation."
There have been reports in recent weeks from across central Minnesota of large groups or "rafts" of loons on lakes where they are seldom, if ever, seen as they wait for lake ice to melt farther north.
"They are waiting for their home lakes to open up," Henderson said.
The late spring will delay nesting and egg-hatching this year, but loons should still have plenty of time to raise their young before heading south in October or November.
"If they have to re-nest a second or third time, that could be cutting it close when you have a late spring like this," he said.