Call of the Wild: Loons
Our juvenile sulks, or so it looks to me, off in a far corner of the pond. His task now is to make the transition from water to air and to find his way to the coast. Over the next weeks, we see him struggle a few times and get briefly airborne, only to drift back to the water. It must be hard to develop the strength–and possibly the nerve, too–that will lift you away from all you’ve ever known.
The days grow shorter and colder. Our daughter catches me on the dock one afternoon, yelling across the pond at the young loon, “Get out of here!”
At the end of the 2010 field season, I’d spoken to Tiffany Grade, LPC’s field biologist for Squam Lake. Squam nests had again failed, one after the other. What most bothered her, she said, was one particular–and preventable–death. A male with a chick had been captured for banding and routine testing and was discovered to have elevated levels of lead. Attempts to recapture the male proved unsuccessful. A territorial battle ended with the weakened male beached on shore, and its chick, hatched the day before ours, killed by the attacking loon.
At Tufts, Mark Pokras performed a necropsy on the dead adult and found a fishing jig, made of lead, legal size. “That lead jig killed two loons,” Grade said.
In the end, only two chicks survived to fledge on the big lake. Elsewhere around the state, results were slightly better. But on Squam, once again, every individual mattered.
After each loon census now, Grade would call Rawson Wood at his home in Sanibel, Florida, to give him the numbers. Wood was over 100 years old and could no longer make the trip to Squam, but he still wanted to know how the loons were doing. Just a few miles from where he took the call, sandy beaches led down to the Gulf of Mexico.
Wood thanked Grade for the update. He told her that it had brought back so many memories. For that moment, he said, he could “still hear the loons.”
In early December, I wake to a grim scene: our pond frozen over, the young loon paddling far out from shore in a tiny black hole of open water. A short time later, I look out from our bedroom window and no longer see him there. Feeling heavy, almost resigned, I scan the surface. After so long, I wonder, is this how the story ends? I finally spot him, 50 yards away, motionless on the ice.
It is, I’m afraid, the beginning of the end. Deep mysteries remain about loons and their survival, but certain things are known, and the likely fate of a loon lying motionless on December ice is one of them. The knowledge saddens me, and makes me think about other things that researchers know, the measures that could be taken to save them.
Mark Pokras had told me that if you remove mortality due to lead poisoning–eliminate just that one factor–the loon survival ratio reaches the magic 0.48. Eliminate lead in fishing tackle, and get boaters to travel at no-wake speeds near nesting and brood areas, and–despite the dizzying environmental complexities–the New England loon population hits carrying capacity.