Pure Loonacy | A Day Chasing Loons in Vermont
Recently, my neighbor, Eric Hanson, the Vermont State Loon Biologist and his wife, Anne packed the car for a trip to Anne’s college reunion. Early Friday morning, Eric stashed one more item in the back: a Styrofoam steak box. By 5:30 am they were all headed south on I-89 toward Massachusetts– Eric and Anne and the box with two frozen loons, their beaks tucked into their shoulders as if they were sleeping.
The rebounding Vermont loon population, up from 29 birds in 1983 to an estimated 280 birds in 2012, means that much of Eric’s waking hours, especially from April to November, are preoccupied with the living, flying, yodeling, mating, nesting, chick rearing, and migrating loons in Vermont, and moreover, serving as a kind of public relations director for them. But, when a farmer scoops a dead loon off his manure pit, and when a few days later, a resident on Nelson Pond spots a dead loon floating by the shoreline, Eric also serves as their temporary undertaker. And Eric’s freezer is where they go, at least until he can catch up with Dr. Mark Pokras, a veterinarian at Tufts who offers loon autopsy services for Eric’s employer, The Vermont Center for Ecostudies. Providently, Dr. Pokras had plans to be in Brattleboro on Saturday afternoon, which was sort of on the way back from Anne’s reunion, and so they finessed a timely pass off of the steak box.
As we drive over to Lake Eligo, to check up on a nesting loon, Eric jokes that more of his time is spent on people than on the big black birds with a spooky song. And I, having shown up at his house with a question about our local loon population, “Eric, I heard them a few nights ago, in the middle of the night, why—?”– am a text- book example of his daily truth.
Nevertheless, sometimes the two species of Eric’s work his converge beautifully. Any twinge of loss I feel for the recent casualties is brushed off with awe: through Eric’s binoculars, I spot the unmistakable profile of a loon jutting from the lake island’s edge, where she is sitting on one, perhaps two, eggs. If two have been recently lost, but two are about to hatch, then Vermont’s loon population may still be an encouraging 280. Soon we’re back in the station wagon, cruising over to Little Hosmer where there are reports of three loons. As Eric untethers his canoe, hoists it off the roof, and hauls it over to the lake’s edge, he explains that until the extra bird flies off, the pair won’t settle into nesting. In some ways the birds’ circumstance is a gentle parallel to Eric’s career and family life, which began as he and Anne withdrew from a farming project with friends, and he took a job in loon conservation biology. Soon after, his son Anders was born. Now Anders, who just finished eighth grade, is headed to canoe camp in Minnesota, the same camp where Eric learned to paddle a canoe, the very camp where, once, standing on shore, Eric had his first near-loon experience. He remembers the splash and chaos as one loon pursued another, plunging through the lake water right in front of him.
Today Little Hosmer is breathlessly still. We paddle out and then Eric spots them, yes, three. Two dive below and one remains floating, in a sort of, “Hey? Guys?” then it too dips under. We wait, silent, our paddles hanging, dripping above the water, scanning to see where they’ll pop up next.