Lake of the Woods terns gamble wrong on 2014 floods

Common tern nests flooded this spring
Flood waters from the Rainy River flowed into Lake of the Woods this spring, raising water levels and inundating shoreline wildlife dwellings, like this common tern nest.
Courtesy of Christine Herwig/DNR

It wasn't a great year for the shoreline wildlife of Lake of the Woods.

Flood waters from the saturated Rainy River watershed poured into the lake starting in June. The same water held in check by hundreds of thousands of sandbags in International Falls raised Lake of the Woods water levels by six feet in a matter of weeks.

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"There were nests under water, eggs floating around," said Minnesota Department of Natural Resources nongame specialist Christine Herwig, who studies birds, and visited the lake near peak levels.

Water levels on Lake of the Woods are still high.
Water levels on Lake of the Woods are still high. The docks at Sportsman's Lodge rest partially submerged, kept down by 55 gallon drums of water.
John Enger/MPR News

Mainly the inundated structures belonged to birds like the common tern. Contrary to what the name suggests, common terns aren't that common. They're classified as threatened in Minnesota.

Lake of the Woods is located on Minnesota's northern border, where miles of forest and bog give way to big sky and water. Lake of the Woods county boasts only three people per square mile. Usually it's a good place for terns to lay some eggs, she said.

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This year roughly 20 pairs of common terns made their nests on the shore of Pine and Curry Island and were subsequently washed away. Nesting, Herwig said is an uncertain time for terns, a sort of a yearly gamble between the predators of higher ground and potential shoreline flooding.

"If they nest close to the water they may be more protected from predators," she said. "But then there could be flooding. There are risks associated with each of those decisions."

This year the terns apparently made the wrong gamble. Water rose and engulfed the nests, early enough to catch the chicks still in their shell, late enough the adults couldn't lay more eggs.

High water drowned out the wild rice crop.
The Baudette River flows into the Rainy and on into Lake of the Woods. Usually this water is thick with wild rice. This year spring high water drowned out the crop.
John Enger/MPR News

That's an entire generation of young lost to flood waters. According to Scott Laudenslager, DNR wildlife supervisor, plenty of other animals were affected by the same high water including gulls, cormorants and muskrat.

Mink and muskrat young are born with their eyes closed. "They can't get around too well like that," Laudenslager said.

Water is receding now, leaving fewer young animals scurrying around the lake shore. And there are more problems on the horizon.

Laudenslager said wild rice is usually flourishing out his window this time of year at the mouth of the Baudette River, which flows into the Rainy River and onto Lake of the Woods. He said muskrat eat the rice, and mink eat the muskrat -- a perfect illustration of the food chain in action.

This year the rice wasn't yet to the surface what the water rose. It drowned. This fall muskrat, and mink will have to find some new food sources.

"We're not looking at anything going extinct," he said, "but things will look different for a while."