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Call of the Wild: Loons

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.

If loons are to survive the territorial battle taking place right now at the southern edge of their range, it will be human beings who must adapt. Harry Vogel points out that loons can successfully raise families on developed lakes–but the more our lakes stray from their original wild condition, he says, the more intensive the management required.

It’s an ironic truth: If having wildness in our lives is important, if we want to continue to hear the Far North cry of the loon across southern New England, we must intervene.

Let nature take its course, a neighbor had told me, as I watched the ice come in. But whose nature? I think of the young loon’s parents, all they’d invested in their offspring. I see one chance to help, and it energizes me.

Jim and I launch a canoe from the nearest shore. Breaking thin ice ahead of us with our paddles, we lever and pole and slowly slide through the water. As we approach, the loon rallies briefly, then lies down, curling away from the wind. Blowing snow piles up against his back. He offers little resistance as I lean over from the canoe and net him.

A few hours later, Vogel and his senior biologist examine and weigh the young bird at LPC’s Loon Center on Lake Winnipesaukee. Vogel feels along his keel and isn’t surprised to discover his flight muscles underdeveloped, the bird seriously underweight. The senior biologist places a U.S. Fish & Wildlife band around one leg, then drives him to a rehabilitator in Maine.

Five days later, healthy after being treated for tapeworm and frostbite, the loon makes one last trip with the help of people. The rehabilitator carries him in her arms down a long boardwalk and releases him into a protected cove along the southern Maine coast. The loon lingers for a brief moment. Then he rides the swells out into the bay, carrying the weight of two species, stretches his wings, and dives into the dark water.

Save the date! The annual Loon Festival at The Loon Center in Moultonborough, NH, is set for July 21 this year. Details on the event and more on the work of the Loon Preservation Committee at: 603-476-5666; View Judy Lombardi’s slide show of stunning loon photos.


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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