Unusual Conservation Project Seeks To Restore Massachusetts' Loons With Maine Chicks

Sep 30, 2016

There’s an unusual conservation effort underway involving loons from Maine called Restore the Call.

Biologists from the Biodiversity Research Institute have been capturing loon chicks from places with healthy loon populations and transporting them to a lake in southeastern Massachusetts, where they were wiped out more than a century ago. The hope is that by the time the chicks migrate for the winter, they’ll have imprinted on the new lake and will eventually return to successfully reproduce.

Susan Sharon takes us along for the nighttime capture and release of one the chicks, known as No. 6.

It’s late August. The sun is setting a brilliant pink on Aziscohos Lake in remote, western Maine and three biologists are on the hunt for a single loon chick.

There are 24 pairs of nesting loons on this lake, and the team has identified two young birds swimming with their parents. As our boat moves in closer, the adult loons sound their famous alarm.

“These chicks here are around five weeks, about a week younger than the ones we’ll go after,” says biologist Bill Hansen.

Hansen says that at about six weeks, loon chicks are more independent, starting to separate from their parents and feed on their own. They’re also young enough to be impressionable when they take their first migratory flight in the fall.

BRI biologists prepare for the release of Chick No. 6 on Pocksha Pond in Massachusetts.
Credit Susan Sharon / Maine Public

“Our thinking is that the most important time for that bird to imprint to his home territory is on the first flight he ever takes, he or she,” he says. “That’s when maybe they develop that map for home.”

And that’s why the Biodiversity Research Institute, with permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and support from Maine’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department, is experimenting with what’s known as translocation, taking nine chicks from lakes and ponds in Maine and upstate New York and raising them in a 12- by 24-foot partially submerged pen on a pond in Lakeville, Massachusetts.

The chicks are then released just a few weeks before their expected migration.

But the big challenge is catching them. Loons are skittish, and they’re also good divers. That’s why the work has to be done at night, to keep the team undercover.

Each person has a specific job. One maneuvers the boat, one manages a long pole with a dip net for scooping up the bird and another operates a spotlight.

“The only purpose for the light is it’s not just to light up the bird. It’s to blind the birds so that the bird hears a call or something approaching and sees this big light and hopefully doesn’t see the person with the net or the boat until it’s too late,” Hansen says.

Michelle Kneeland takes blood samples from Chick No. 6.
Credit Susan Sharon / Maine Public

Even in August, it’s windy and cold on the lake, cold enough to require winter jackets, hats and gloves. Looking for loon chicks demands patience and luck. Sometimes it can take several hours of riding up and down the lake in the dark.

Sometimes, the loons are elusive and the team comes up empty handed. By 11 p.m. we’ve called it a night.

So, the following week there’s a second nighttime mission, this time on Panther Pond in Raymond, Maine, with a couple new team members helping out.

Alex Dalton, a wildlife research biologist with the Biodiversity Research Institute, spotted a pair of loon chicks earlier in the day, loons that are about 5.5 weeks old.

“We’re trying to find a balance between the chicks being able to eat on their own but also being young enough to where they’re, they’re not so hard to catch and hard to rear in the pens,” he says.

Not long after sunset, a chick is seen swimming alone, and the team swiftly moves in. Within moments they’ve captured and secured it on the boat. This little guy — or gal, since its sex isn’t known yet — is officially known as Chick No. 6.

They take a blood sample, get a weight and prepare the bird for transport in a special container to keep it cool. Biologist Joe Roy says the goal is to make the loon’s three-hour car trip as stress-free as possible.

The pen where chicks are raised.
Credit Susan Sharon / Maine Public

“And he’ll go into the vehicle, which will have the AC on, and we’ll be completely silent for the entire trip down,” he says.

Once the loon gets to Massachusetts, a veterinarian will evaluate the bird. And before dawn it will be swimming in the pen, where it will mature over several weeks.

Back on shore, Roy weighs his feelings of guilt in taking a loon chick off its home lake.

“Part of you, the human emotional part of you, feels bad for stealing the chick, but then the scientific part of you kicks in,” he says. “You’re like, ‘Oh - it’s all part of the greater good of expanding the range back to its historic range.’“

Loons disappeared from Massachusetts in the late 1800s. In fact, Dalton says the last breeding pair was apparently shot by a biologist who wanted to confirm that they were loons.

As well-loved symbols of healthy, freshwater lakes, it’s long been hoped that the species could be recovered. And in the 1970s they did start returning on their own, but only to the central part of the state and not in large numbers.

Fast forward to late September, and Chick No. 6 is a little bit older and quite a bit heavier, having been fed live fish over the past few weeks. It’s about 5 a.m., and with the help of a local volunteer, biologists are taking some final measurements and blood samples to test for infection.

Michelle Kneeland releases Chick No. 6.
Credit Susan Sharon / Maine Public

They’re also banding the bird with a unique color code so he, or she, can be identified in the future.

“This is the last of the pen-reared chicks to be released,” says Michelle Kneeland, a veterinarian with BRI. “See that sandbar over there? We’re just gonna put him on the other side of that sandbar. That just kind of separates the north part of the lake from the south part.”

Because the chicks will spend the next several years at sea, it will take that long before researchers know whether translocation has worked. If it does, it could have implications for loons and other species facing threats such as climate change.

Similar efforts have aided peregrine falcons, trumpeter swans and whooping cranes.

Kneeland wades out knee-deep in the lake carrying the loon in its special container. Everyone holds their breath, and suddenly Chick No. 6 is free.

The loon swims around. And then, as Dalton notes, something unexpected happens.

Alex Dalton holds Chick No. 6.
Credit Susan Sharon / Maine Public

“So we just released Chick 6 and it just met up with Chick 2 who is from New York. And within three minutes of the release they’ve buddied up and the general consensus about this phenomenon is that it is wicked cute,” he says.

That was more than a week ago, and the chicks haven’t left on their own yet, but they have started hanging out with another loon, Chick 3, and biologists say that, so far, they’re all doing just fine.