Originally published June 5, 2018.
The Portland-based Biodiversity Research Institute is calling the return of an adult, male loon to a chain of ponds in southeastern Massachusetts “a major milestone in loon conservation.”
The loon was born in another state, captured by biologists as a chick and taken to Massacushetts in an effort to imprint it in a place where loons disappeared more than a century ago. Biologists are hoping to see other loons return over the next few weeks.
The male loon is known as Chick No. 4-2015. He’s one of 16 loons born in New York and Maine over the past three years, separated from its parents as a chick and raised in a partially submerged holding pen on a pond in Lakeville, Massachusetts. There, he learned to feed on his own and grew bigger.
He was released from the pen, got acquainted with the other transplanted loons in the area and, by the time the skies darkened and the first snow flew, so had Chick No. 4, along with his comrades. They typically spend three years at sea.
“The next question is, ‘OK, do they come back as breeding adults and stay on territory?’ And we’re finding that next step is happening right now,” says Dr. Dave Evers, an expert on loon ecology and conservation and the director of the Biodiversity Research Institute, which has been conducting one of the largest loon studies in the world.
Loons are a key indicator species, and their populations have declined in some places because of hunting, habitat loss and pollution. BRI’s research has focused on three populations — in Wyoming, Minnesota and in the Northeast.
“We’re actually kickstarting the recovery of loons, of breeding loons in the state of Massachusetts and some of these areas that would still take decades for them to recover, if they ever recovered at all,” Evers says.
Translocation, the practice of moving wildlife from one area to repopulate another, is one of BRI’s strategies. It’s done only with permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies.
Loons are hard to catch, so biologists do their work at night. They use large dip nets and spotlights that temporarily hypnotize the chicks long enough so they can scoop them into a boat and take them to shore. After that, the chicks are transported in a special container in a quiet, air conditioned vehicle until they reach the Massachusetts destination.
“Part of you, the human, emotional part of you feels bad for stealing the chick, but then the scientific part of you kicks in. You’re like, ‘Oh, it’s all part of the greater good, expanding the range back to its historic range and stuff like that,’” says biologist Joe Roy.
Similar efforts have worked for peregrine falcons, trumpeter swans and whooping cranes. The return of Chick No. 4 is evidence that loons will return to lakes where they fledged. In general, that’s about 50 percent.
Evers says it’s still too early to say what will happen with the Massachusetts experiment. The other adults are expected over the next few weeks.
“If we had I don’t know, 30, 40, 50 percent then that came back, of the chicks that we released, we’d be very happy,” he says.
Evers says so would the residents of Lakeville. The loon’s famous, haunting call, so common on Maine lakes and ponds, hasn’t been heard there for 130 years.