Every year, some of our returning loons manage to get themselves into “hot water” so to speak. They ingest fishing gear, get sick, or land in the wrong places (like on roads, in fields, or ponds too small to allow loon lift-off)—and then my phone rings. We do our best to respond to every situation, which often includes calling on our dedicated volunteers to monitor a loon for days or weeks, or jump into a small boat with me in the dark of night with spotlights and a giant dip net to catch an injured loon. We attempt most captures at night because loons tend to follow spotlights, allowing us to get close with the net. Sometimes we are successful and the loon lives to migrate another year, and sometimes despite our best efforts, we are not.
We’ve been busy this summer. The following is a summary of rescues, attempted rescues, and recorded deaths for 2018 thus far. I’ll write again with a final update at year’s end.
Rescues and Attempted Rescues
Lake Raponda – June 2
I was helping VCE volunteer Henry Dandeneau place nest warning signs around a nest island when I noticed a sleeping loon very near shore. Something was amiss. Upon closer inspection, we saw that the loon had fishing line wrapped around its bill and head. Its mate sat nearby on the island nest, incubating eggs. Henry and I went right to work hatching a plan to return for a rescue attempt. By the time I made the 3.5 hour drive south for the second time a few days later, the pair had abandoned the nest. The loon (we call it FL—Fish Line loon) had re-joined its mate out on the main lake and easily avoided our nighttime spotlighting capture attempts, diving every time we got close. In fact, we only saw FL twice in over 90 minutes of searching. Wilmington resident and VCE volunteer Nicki Steel continues to monitor FL three to four times a week. She observes it dive, preen, and eat small fish. The fishing line has loosened over time, but has caused an infection at the base of the bill. FL catches larger fish, but cannot eat them. We’ve tried two more capture attempts to no avail. Nicki and others will continue to follow FL into the fall and report on whether it weakens or seems well enough to fly and migrate on its own.
Marshfield – June 17
A loon showed up on the lawn (yes, the lawn!) of a Vermont State Parks employee who lived not far from Knob Hill Pond. How in the world did the loon get there? Did it crawl out of the pond looking for bigger waters? Did it crash land while flying at night? We will never know. Since I was not available that day, staff from the Vermont Institute for Natural Science (VINS) stepped in. After determining there was nothing wrong with the loon, VINS staff released it on Knob Hill Pond, which did not host territorial nesting loons and was therefore safe for our grounded bird. Happily, the loon left within the week, most likely to fish in nearby ponds in Calais, Woodbury, or Marshfield.
East Hardwick – August 9
A loon landed on a 100-foot long pond in Michelle Demers front yard, taking up residence with their eight-foot inflatable pink Flamingo. Michelle and her family watched the loon try to take off several times, but it consistently bailed out before reaching the bank. I arranged for the use of gill net from Vermont Fisheries Essex office just in case we could not catch it using spotlights and a dip net. I gathered my 20-year-old son, Anders, and a good friend of his, Jacob Morse, for a Monday night of entertainment in the Northeast Kingdom–a loon round-up.
We hauled a borrowed 12-foot fishing boat, spotlights, trolling motor, and batteries to the shore. The loon called, probably wondering what the ruckus was all about. Every time Anders trained the spotlight on the bird, it dove. I began to worry that this would be a repeat of Lake Raponda! After 10 minutes of trolling in circles, locating the loon, making approaches, and watching it dive again, we noticed the bird change behavior; it started to follow the spotlight and stay on the surface longer. I hooted, imitating another adult loon. We got closer. Jacob turned that boat around using the trolling motor, shifting from forward to reverse and back again, faster than I’ve ever seen. I finally had a chance to plunge the net in front of the diving loon, and we got it. We adorned the loon with yellow, green, and silver bracelets (leg bands) and released it on Caspian Lake, a few miles up the road. I’d hire Jacob and Anders for any capture crew!
We know that death is an inevitable part of life—and while it is never easy to record a loon death, we need this information to further our research and conservation work to ensure a healthy Vermont loon population well into the future. Here is a summary of loon mortalities recorded so far in 2018.
Molly’s Falls Reservoir – May 30
Green Mountain Power was in the process of repairing the dam on this reservoir, which required maintaining a low water level until the repair work was completed. It turns out that on this lake, low water levels made for much more difficult loon work! VCE interns Alex Kulungian and Tara Rodkey helped me literally roll and push two loon nesting rafts across 100 feet of mudflats to be placed in the water where the loon pairs were waiting.
The next day I received a report of a dead loon on the island, where the newer “island” pair has nested several times. As I paddled by the “north” pair’s nesting raft, I noted that a loon had taken up residence within 48 hours of our placing the raft in the water. That’s quick. When I arrived at the island, I saw the second loon pair right off shore and a dead loon up on the sandy beach. Did it lose a fight in a territorial battle? I collected the bird and sent it to Tufts Wildlife Clinic for a necropsy. Later this year, we’ll receive their report and I’ll post an update on this loon’s cause of death.
Back to the island pair: they nested on their raft a week or so later. We’re glad they have shifted nest sites from the island to the raft, because the island is a popular picnic spot and camping location.
Nelson Pond – July 16
Lake residents observed a loon that appeared weak and made raspy breathing noises. The next morning they found the loon had beached itself. A vacationing veterinarian from Dummerston, Dr. Ron Svec, put the bird in a container so I could retrieve it and bring it to Dr. Robert Hoppe in St. Johnsbury. Dr. Hoppe performed an x-ray, which showed that one lung was filled with fluid. Next I called on Dr. Mark Pokras, a retired Tufts University expert on loon mortality, who surmised that Aspergillosis, a fungal disease, had very likely taken over the lung. We could see a two-inch metal object in the body as well (partially dissolved fishing hook?), which might have caused the initial infection allowing Aspergillosis to take hold. Unfortunately, we had to euthanize the loon, and sent it to Tufts for further analysis. Despite the loss of the loon, this unfortunate event brought three collaborating veterinarians together in an attempt to save its life.
Thurman Dix Reservoir – August 26
VCE volunteer Cindy Grimes called from the shores of Thurman Dix reservoir after finding one mate of a known loon pair dead near shore. She was extremely upset since these were “her” loons, as she had spent from three to four hours every Sunday watching them, along with other birds in the area. I drove down to pick up the bird, further evaluate the situation, and talk things over with Cindy. The other adult and nine-week old chick seemed to be healthy. She had observed a loon beaching itself several times over the previous three weeks, but the same loon would also be found in the water acting normally. Intruder loons were common this summer, so could this bird have been injured in a fight? Or had it caught a disease? Once again, I sent the deceased bird to Tufts for further evaluation to determine the cause of death.
This summary illustrates citizen science in action—people taking the time to report on or directly help save a loon in trouble, or help us figure out how they died. It can be heart-wrenching to monitor a distressed bird, or to come across one that has died. Thank you all for your participation, which greatly contributes to our conservation and education efforts now and into the future.