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Loon Protection Program Yields Positive Results

Maine Audubon File Photo

The Portland-based Biodiversity Research Institute is reporting a development that could have broad implications for efforts to protect loons.

A loon chick that was relocated from Maine to a lake in Massachusetts last summer has returned to its second home, not the lake where it was born. And that’s raising hopes that loons could be restored to their former breeding range.

For the past three years, biologists from BRI have taken 17 loons from healthy loon populations in northern New York state and Maine and transported them to southeastern Massachusetts where loons vanished more than a century ago. It’s part of an experiment, approved by the state and federal government, to try to restore loons to places that they once lived.

Once relocated, the chicks are raised in a submerged pen on the new lake for several weeks. One chick from Maine known as “Number 6” was being evaluated, weighed, measured and banded by biologist Alex Dalton and a volunteer before his release to his new home last summer.

The goal is to get the loon chicks to imprint on the lake before they take their first flight during fall migration. Typically, young loons will spend several years in the ocean before returning home. But Dave Evers says this year something unexpected happened. A young loon from Maine came back a year early – and it returned to the lake in Massachusetts. BRI’s executive director Dave Evers says it was spotted earlier this week.

“We are pretty excited to see that this is working, said Evers. “We’re raising loon chicks in a certain area, release them to the wild and a year later, here they come back to the lake.”

Evers says restoring bird species in this manner is considered an accepted bird conservation practice. It’s previously been done with peregrine falcons, trumpeter swans and whooping cranes but this is the first time trans-location has been done successfully with a common loon. And Evers says it marks a big moment for future loon conservation since loons are traditionally so faithful in returning to lakes where they were hatched even though there could be quality habitat for them 30 miles away.

“We’re jump-starting the population in Massachusetts where right now the breeding is about 44 pairs, Evers said. “We’re hoping that loons return and now we do know that they do return. The next step is waiting for those returning loons to set up shop and start breeding and set up a population in that area.”

The experiment is part of a broader project called “Restore the Call” that is also underway in several western states and Minnesota.