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Call of the Wild: Loons

Wood marshaled longtime summer residents around the lake to adopt loons in particular coves or bays. Feeling connected to “their” loons, people gave money to Wood’s organization. They put up signs and formed floating armadas to protect newly hatched chicks on busy weekends.

Drawing on the data collected by the new organization, the state of New Hampshire added the common loon to its list of threatened species in 1979.

Wood’s Mercedes, sporting a LOONS license plate, became a familiar sight around the lake. His summer place was located near the spot where film crews shot On Golden Pond, which opens with Katharine Hepburn’s quavering call to Henry Fonda, playing her irascible husband: “Norman … the loons! The loons! They’re welcoming us back.” In the movie, loons serve as metaphors for home and family, what we hold onto, what slips away. (“I don’t hear a thing,” grumbles Norman.) After the film’s release, a Wall Street Journal reporter noted the growing association of loons with exclusivity and access to unspoiled places like Squam. Loons, he wrote, had become “a totem to the wealthy.”

Field biologists returned every year to Squam and other lakes in New Hampshire. Gradually, counts ticked upward. The data they collected, by 2010 spanning 35 years, became the most extensive ever assembled on loons.

The research expanded beyond Squam and beyond New Hampshire. In 1987, Wood and his biologists began working with a young veterinarian at Tufts, Mark Pokras. Pokras sliced open the stomach of the first dead loon LPC sent him and found fishing tackle lodged there. The steel hook could have disintegrated over time, but the sinker, made of soft lead, had poisoned the bird.

Pokras began keeping his own records, which would grow to more than 1,500 loon necropsies. Of the adults that came to him off the summer breeding grounds, lead had killed half.

Wood and the committee took their findings to the state. After years of being lobbied, in 2000 New Hampshire’s legislature banned the sale and use of lead sinkers weighing one ounce or less and jigs under one inch. The law was the first in the nation to restrict lead fishing gear.

In time, mining decades of data, loon biologists developed a single number for indexing population stability: the ratio of surviving chicks to territorial pairs. A ratio of 0.48 meant that a population on a given lake, or in a given region, was stable. A higher number signaled an expanding population; a lower number warned of a population in decline.

Entering the new century, Squam’s loon population appeared healthy. Across New Hampshire, the number of nesting loon pairs had tripled. Only once in 25 years had the statewide breeding ratio dipped significantly below the magic 0.48 indicator. The Loon Preservation Committee had shown that it was possible to reverse the decline of a threatened species.

The success of LPC’s model was startlingly clear across the Connecticut River, where the Vermont Loon Recovery Project took citizen science to new levels. Eric Hanson, the project’s lone biologist, mobilized a volunteer army that exceeded the number of lakes in the state–about 100–considered suitable for loons. More rafts, more float lines protecting nest sites, and more lake-association meetings translated into breeding success. In 1983, only seven pairs of loons had nested in the entire state; by 2005, the year Vermont removed loons from its endangered-species list, 53 nesting pairs had produced 57 surviving chicks. The following year, when a recent state ban on the sale of half-ounce lead sinkers took effect, the number of adult loons in Vermont passed 200.

Loons were slowly recolonizing southern New England, as well. A single pair discovered at Quabbin Reservoir in 1975 grew into a population of 50 adults on a dozen Massachusetts lakes three decades later. Residents reported occasional sightings in Connecticut. Across the country’s northern tier, states and volunteer organizations drew on what Wood’s group had learned from loons on Squam.

The rafts were working. The education was working. Rawson Wood, in his 90s emeritus director of LPC, was still working. The loon–symbol of wild northern places, of the wealthy elite, of successful science–remained on New Hampshire’s threatened-species list, but the talk was of a species that had re-established itself across the southern part of its range. With the help of people like Rawson Wood, it appeared to be on the way to recovery.

The Fourth of July holiday arrives. Any day now, the eggs should hatch. I’ve been keeping anxious watch, checking on the nest each morning and throughout the day. Every time I look out, a loon is there. The constancy of the sitting–in rain, in wind, in heat–strikes me as real work.

“There are no single parents among loons,” Eric Hanson had told me. But it’s looking to me as if the male is getting stuck with all the nest duty, while the female floats and fishes in the open water off the grassy point. The male seems to think so, too, because he occasionally yodels with no predator in sight, no eagle or small airplane passing overhead. (That piercing yodel, plus his greater size, distinguishes the male from the female.) This guy, to my anthropomorphizing ear, is clearly directing his complaints to his mate: Hey! I’ve been on this lumpy bed of reeds for six hours. Your turn with the eggs!

For a time, we called the male “the intruder.” The female had first arrived on the pond in the company of a smaller mate, and we’d initially attached our hopes to that pair. Then the larger male intruded on their idyll. I saw the two males face off: They peered and dipped, rose up, spread their wings, and thrust out their chests, the white flashing in the sun. It appeared at first to be a graceful pas de deux, but the movements were no dance.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Monday, June 20th, 2011

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2 Responses to Call of the Wild: Loons

  1. Alice Huppert March 22, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

    Sir: I read the very interesting article about loons. Can you help? We try each summer to visit places that loons inhabit from New Hampshire to Maine– as far as Umbagog and Katahdin. We see very few and hear even less! My first experience hearing loons was a very breathtaking one (In 2005). I’d heard it during the night and asked the manager in the morning what bird it was I’d heard. He told me “those are the loons.” From there on I have been almost hypnotized by them. At a loon store in New Hampshire (near Squam Lake) I purchased a teaching CD on loons. I play it frequently, especially in the dead of winter.

    I have a question: Will it be much too early to return to SquamLake near the end of April? OR where would you suggest we visit this spring/summer to almost assure us we will hear them?

    Thank you so very much for your reply!

    Alice Huppert

  2. Ed Warren September 24, 2014 at 9:57 pm #

    Alice, I am replying to a 3 year old inquiry. Every summer we rent a “lean-to” in Vermont’s Groton State Park at Ricker Pond campground. Ever since 2006 there have loons that call out in the early morning hours. We have seen their young. And we have even seen them fly over head.

    You must see “On Golden Pond”! It was filmed on Squam Lake.

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