This Thing Called Courage

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Loons on the Line


THIS IS FROM DEFENDERS MAGAZINE, the quarterly publication from the wonderful folks at Defenders of Wildlife.


Loons on the Line
New Englanders give the not-so-common loon a helping hand
by Gretel H. Schueller

© Ray Richer
Eric Hanson pulls out his binoculars—a silhouette in the distance looks promising. He paddles his canoe closer. "Oh, yeah! A chick just shot across the lake! It's really thrashing around." Nearby an adult loon with its dramatic black and white plumage flaps its wings in the water. The two loons are doing what Hanson calls "extreme preening." Every few hours, loons need to get oils into their feathers; otherwise, water begins absorbing into the body. "They're really flushing their feathers. Sometimes they'll stick one wing out and go in a circle. Sometimes they'll do somersaults."


For Hanson, who leads the Vermont Loon Recovery Project, these birds symbolize Vermont's loon resurgence. "I thought we'd never see loons here," he says, as he paddles across Hardwick Lake on an August afternoon. Since 2002, however, a pair has made this lake in northeast Vermont its summer home. And since then, Hanson and a dedicated network of volunteers have been watching them—and the rest of Vermont's growing population of loons—very closely.
Loons can stir even the most cynical of souls—think Henry Fonda in the movie "On Golden Pond." It may be their mournful call, which the Chippewa Indians called the "omen of death." It may have something to do with their devotion: A male and female pair can return year after year to the same lake to nest. Or it may be because of their fragility: Loons are one of a select group of birds that have multiple organizations dedicated singularly to their survival, such as the Adirondack Loon Conservation Program, the Michigan Loon Society and New Hampshire's Loon Preservation Committee.


It's a good thing, too. Although loon numbers are increasing in many areas, the future of loons is far from secure. "People tend to think of loons as this wilderness bird," Hanson notes. "And they probably were." But, he adds, today the birds are sharing lakes with tourists, motorboats, jet skis, anglers and increasing shoreline development. Mercury poisoning, run-ins with fishing line, decreasing habitat and global warming are all growing threats that could significantly impact the population, he believes.


More than 600,000 loons make their home in North America. Roughly 90 percent of them breed in Canada; Minnesota claims the largest population in the United States, with somewhere between 10,300 and 12,900. The birds also summer in Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin. They winter mainly along the coasts, ranging as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. But the common loon (Gavia immer) wasn't always so loved or so common.


In the 1800s, fishermen considered loons pests. Trout were declining in lakes across the Northeast; killing the fish-eating birds seemed justified. Some states even discussed placing a bounty on loons. But they hardly needed that incentive: By the turn of the century, hunters were shooting thousands of birds each spring when the loons returned to their breeding lakes. The practice stopped in 1918 with passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Threats to loons did not end there, however.


More than half of the adult loon deaths in New England with known causes are due to poisoning from lead fishing sinkers, according to researchers at Tufts University. Hundreds of tons of lead fishing tackle are lost in waters annually across the country. Loons ingest small pebbles—as many as 20 to 30—to help break down the fish bones in their gizzards. Unfortunately, the birds often mistake lead fishing tackle for pebbles. The lead breaks down in the loon's stomach, is absorbed into its bloodstream and, within a month, the loon is dead. In response, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont have banned the use and sale of lead sinkers.


New threats, however, are developing: Fishing lines are increasingly ensnaring loons when the birds take live bait or lures. Hanson spent a good chunk of his summer untangling loons from lines—sometimes unsuccessfully. Mercury contamination is another concern. The pollutant drifts east from coal-burning power plants, and is ingested by fish and then by fish-eating birds such as loons. "Mercury is a big problem," states John Cooley, staff biologist with New Hampshire's Loon Preservation Committee. "It magnifies up through the food chain to loons because they live for such a long time—25 to 30 years—and because they are at the top of the aquatic food chain. That affects their breeding, their ability to raise chicks and perhaps even their survival."
The birds are also under assault in their winter habitats—particularly the stretch of mid-Atlantic coast from New Jersey to North Carolina. More than 500 loons die here each season when they get caught in commercial gillnets. Oil spills pose another threat. In 1996, a barge spilled more than 800,000 gallons of home heating oil off the Rhode Island coast, killing an estimated 400 loons. In 2003, 200 loons died during an oil spill in Buzzard's Bay, Massachusetts. In the Great Lakes, recent outbreaks of botulism have killed more than 15,000 migrating loons.


Nonetheless, things still look good for Vermont's loons. "We know based on records that loons were breeding throughout the state 150 years ago," Hanson notes. "In 1983, there were only seven mating pairs in the northeast part of the state. It's our responsibility to make amends and fix that." And for that past 10 years that's exactly what Hanson and a dedicated troop of volunteers have been doing. In fact, the loon's recovery has been so successful that in 2005 the state removed the bird from its endangered species list. In 2007, Vermont claimed 62 nesting pairs and an estimated total adult population of 216.


"Ten years ago, observing a loon on any lake in Vermont was a treat," says Hanson. Now it's difficult not to see one in the lake-dotted region of northeast Vermont. From early May to September—with a canoe strapped to the top of his rusty Toyota pickup—he drives across the state monitoring loons, which need cold, fish-rich lakes and plenty of elbowroom. They're big, territorial waterfowl measuring nearly three feet long and weighing six to ten pounds. To become airborne, they need a watery runway to get a running start, sometimes splashing along for a quarter of a mile before gaining enough speed to take flight. "You get under 250 acres, you're only going to have one pair," explains Hanson. "We have one lake that's 340 acres and happens to have three pairs. But it's a very fish-rich lake."


One of the places Hanson has been monitoring is Hardwick Lake. This year, a chick was born here in June. He scans the water. "It should be ready to fly by now." Adults typically arrive at their summer nesting grounds in late April or early May. After a little courtship—a water ballet, songs and bursts of wing flapping—both male and female take turns incubating one or two eggs for about 28 days. Chicks are typically born between mid-June and late July.


Hanson steers the canoe toward the nest, a floating island of grasses and shrubs about the size of a large chair. A bowl-shaped depression sprinkled with eggshell fragments marks the center. You'd never guess this wasn't the work of mother nature. Actually, Hanson made the nesting raft out of logs across which he stretched rubber-coated steel mesh. Then soil and plants got piled on. He's made several dozen over the years. "I get my canoe pretty muddy setting them out," he jokes.


In spite of the mud, wildlife managers use these rafts in loon nesting territory across the country. "They've made a huge difference for the loons' ability to breed," notes Cooley. Loons are extremely skittish when nesting. If they feel at all threatened—say from a boat getting a little too close—into the water they go, usually kicking an egg in also. (The word loon comes from the Scandinavian lom, which means clumsy—and on land they are.) For this reason, loons seek out spaces at the water's edge in marshy areas, sheltered from predators such as snapping turtles, raccoons and eagles. But these spots leave the nests vulnerable to flooding. "If we get two inches of rain, the level on a lake can go up six," Hanson explains. Nest failures from rising water aren't unique to Vermont. One year, Maine lost almost half its nests to flooding. "If with global climate change we start to see more storm activity, it could harm productivity," he worries.


After securing the nest so it will weather the winter, Hanson takes another look at the preening birds. He's glad he saw "his" loons. "We're still fortunate," he explains. "We're following every breeding pair that we know of in the state." Monitoring more than 150 lakes closely wouldn't be possible without a statewide team of enthusiastic volunteers. The biggest volunteer effort is Loonwatch, an annual count that takes place across the country on the third Saturday of July. In Maine, with a loon population of more than 4,000, nearly 1,000 people participate. In Vermont last summer, more than 200 people took part.


"You don't need to be a wildlife expert or even an avid birder" to participate, says Hanson. "I think that's one reason why they're so popular." Indeed, many volunteers go on to become stewards for both loons and lakes. "I start training them to put rafts out and signs, just really empower them to take over management of their lake. Because of that, they become the educators of the lake as well. So now, they're talking to their neighbors and their neighbors become better informed."


For example, there's Loretta Whitehead. At the edge of her lakeside property in Concord, she's planted grasses and reeds to protect the nesting raft she monitors. She gingerly hands Hanson two mud-colored eggs she's been keeping in her freezer; the sulfur smell is overpowering. The eggs never hatched, so they'll be analyzed and tested for mercury. He adds them to the cooler of his truck.


Then there's Ray and Evelyn Richer. "They have educated this huge, extremely busy, developed lake. I never even have to come here," says Hanson. When they moved to Joe's Pond in Cabot 10 years ago, "there was a pair doing courtship displays," recalls Ray Richer. "We were on the deck watching, thinking 'great.' So I called fish and wildlife asking what I should do. They pretty much laughed at me and said we would never have nesting loons on Joe's Pond because it's just too busy."


The Richers proved him wrong. Ray proceeded to build the Ritz-Carlton of nesting platforms, thick with cattails and shrubs and placed well out of the boat wake. Then he put a huge sign in front asking boaters to go slow and stay in the main channel. By June the loons were sitting on an egg. Instead of spending July 4th admiring the fireworks, the Richers nervously watched the nest to make sure the parents weren't scared off their eggs. Last year, they tried to save an injured chick, the casualty of sibling rivalry, by feeding it minnows every hour. "We were only able to keep it alive for three days," Ray Richer says. Another loon rescue attempt turned out better: A mother caught in fishing line, wrapped around her neck. "We tried to get her, but she kept getting away. After three weeks, she finally beached herself. We snipped her free."
Maybe because they are such a visible and vocal animal, loons give us a connection to wild places, even if those spots aren't so wild any more. Loons are also at the top of the ecosystem, like lions and eagles and wolves. Whatever happens to the rest of the food web will affect loons. "By helping the loons, people are also focusing on their lake and everything about their lake—and the things surrounding their lake," Hanson says. "So they're going to take care of a heck of a lot more than just a pair of loons in the long term."

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