Maine Biologists Are On A Mission To Restore The Call Of The Loon To Its Historic Range
Dave Evers kneels in the bow of a small idling motorboat, surveying the calm lake in front of him with binoculars. It’s 9:30 p.m. and with the exception of a few stars in the sky and a ring of faint cabin lights encircling the lake, it’s difficult to see anything more than a couple feet away. Luckily Evers is one of the world’s foremost loon experts, and a pro at finding the birds in the dark.
(Maine Public reporter Susan Sharon contributed to the audio version of this story.)
After a few minutes of searching, he sees something in the distance and whispers to the man sitting next to him, a local volunteer, to turn on the portable spotlight. The man follows Evers’ directions to slowly scan the surface of the water: “Go left. Go slower. Left. Right there, there’s one.”
The light suddenly silhouettes a small creature, and a tiny dot of light, its eye, reflects back. The 6-week-old chick they’ve been chasing for the last hour has surfaced again. It floats quietly on the water about 20 feet away.
“Hold the light, hold it still,” Evers whispers. The team doesn’t attempt captures during the day because loons dive under water as soon as they see a boat coming. At night, however, it’s possible to get close by temporarily blinding the birds with the spotlight.
Evers signals to his colleague, Chris Persico, to turn on a machine that plays bird sounds. From it comes a loud wail call, that iconic loon sound familiar to anyone who has spent time on a lake in Maine or upstate New York.
To some, the sound is beautiful and nostalgic; others find it haunting, evocative of something primordial. For Evers, it’s an auditory symbol of a well-balanced and healthy ecosystem. To a loon, however, the call is just a call; the bird-equivalent of “Where are you? I’m over here.”
Persico plays the wail again, and steers the boat so it’s facing the chick head on. Illuminated by the light, the bird is disoriented and freezes. Evers puts down the binoculars and picks up a long-handled net. He inches forward until he’s leaning a bit over the side of the boat and gives a series of short “hoots,” the whistle-like call of a young loon.
With the chick still frozen in the spotlight, Persico cues up another wail call. This time, an adult loon somewhere on the other side of the lake responds — its call echoes across the nearly still water. Closer by, one of the chick’s parents emits a series of tremolo calls, the wavering sound that means, “I’m alarmed and threatened, so stay back.” Evers hoots some more; Persico plays the wail call again. It’s like being in a giant domed theater, a cacophony of bird calls coming from all directions.
Eventually, the chick starts swimming toward the boat. Still blinded by the light, it frantically turns its head back and forth like it’s not quite sure where to go. By playing the wail call, Persico hopes to convince the baby bird that it’s getting closer to its parents.
This chick has repeatedly eluded the team, diving under the water every time they get close. But this, it seems, is going to be it. The bird is about 15 feet away now and still swimming. Evers’ body tenses as he leans further over the water, ready to scoop up the bird as soon as it’s within reach.
Suddenly, the chick stops moving. A moment later, there’s a small splash. The silhouetted figure disappears.
Between July and September, Evers, Persico and other biologists with the Portland-based nonprofit Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) went out dozens of times to try to capture loon chicks on lakes in Maine. Whether they were successful often came down to luck. Some nights they caught one on the first try; other times they chased a skittish bird around for hours before giving up.
In total, they captured 12 chicks and released them in Massachusetts as part of a six-year, $2.6 million effort to help restore the birds to their historic range.
“It would take decades for loons to get there on their own,” says Evers, executive director of the BRI. “So this is a way to jumpstart this population.”
Common loons, with their red eyes and distinctive black and white banding, are one of five loon species worldwide. They overwinter on the ocean but spend most of their time on the freshwater lakes and ponds where they breed and raise their young. While most loons live in Canada today, before Europeans arrived in North America, the birds existed throughout much of New England, and even in parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
But as with beavers, seals and so many other animals, human activity decimated the loon population in the 18th century. Between hunting, pollution, shoreline development and habitat loss, loons in southern New England were wiped out by the late 19th century.
Since then, they’ve been slow to come back. Biologists documented a single breeding pair on the Quabbin Reservoir in 1975, and another on the Wachusett Reservoir in 1984. These days, despite ample habitat for the birds, Massachusetts only has 44 breeding pairs. Maine, by contrast, has about 1,700.
Loons are highly territorial creatures. Every spring as soon as the ice begins to thaw, they return to the same lake — and often the same cove or nook in the shoreline — to breed. Most have a designated territory, which they guard — often violently — with their breeding partner. Those without a territory spend their summers in a “neutral” area of a lake, waiting for an opportunity to attack — necropsies often reveal scars or serious wounds inflicted by the sharply-pointed bills of other loons.
Loons can live for more than 30 years, and rarely stray far from their birthplace to breed, even if there’s a lake 10 or 15 miles away with plenty of habitat. So just bringing loons to lakes in Massachusetts won’t work to re-establish the population; the birds will always migrate back to the place they consider home.
For decades, as Evers caught and researched loons across North America, he wondered whether it would be possible to change a loon’s perception of “home” and persuade it to live a new area. But it wasn’t until a devastating oil spill killed hundreds of loons off the coast of Massachusetts that he finally got a chance to test the theory.
On Sunday, April 27, 2003, as hundreds of loons were flying home to lakes in Maine and New Hampshire, an oil tanker in Buzzards Bay strayed from its course and ran aground. The impact gashed a 12-foot-by-2-foot hole in the holding tank of the barge, and number 6 crude oil — a particularly vicious and caustic form of petroleum — began pouring out.
An estimated 98,000 gallons of oil spilled into the bay, and much of it washed up on 100 miles of coastline in southeastern Massachusetts and parts of Rhode Island. Sticky and thick, it clung to rocks, vegetation and anything it encountered.
Gina Purtell, director of Mass Audubon’s Allens Pond Wildlife Sanctuary, says that when she learned about the spill the next morning from the local shellfish warden, she immediately went down to the beach near her office in Dartmouth.
“The fumes were so noxious — your skin, your eyes, everything was just screeching, ‘Go away, go away.’ It was terrible,” she says. “At one point there was this mass exodus [of crabs]. The beach was just swimming with crabs, crawling with crabs, as if they were all anxiously trying to get away from this stuff.”
And then there were the birds. In late April, Buzzards Bay is teeming with migrating waterfowl, and the area just off the coast is a particularly popular rest stop for loons on their way north.
“It was really horrific to see these oiled birds trying to make it to shore. Loons, in particular, are not designed to walk on land,” Purtell says. “And yet they were desperate to get away from the oil.”
Some called out in distress, and others sat prone in the sand. Many tried to scrape the oil off their bodies, inadvertently ingesting the toxic sludge. “It just felt really traumatic, you know, very upsetting,” Purtell says. “Because we caused this. We are at fault.”
Throughout the day, Purtell helped transport oily, distressed loons to a cleanup station where volunteers washed them with Dawn dish soap. But despite everyone’s best effort, many didn’t survive. By the government’s final accounting, the spill killed 1,174 adult birds — including 531 common loons.
Since the accident, the Bouchard Transportation Company — the owner of the barge — has paid millions in fines and settlement negotiations. In 2017, it agreed to pay another $13.3 million for the harm caused to birds. Of that money, $7.3 million was set aside for loon restoration efforts.
A few years before the final deal with Bouchard, government officials and environmental groups began talking about what to do with the settlement money they knew was coming. They discussed purchasing land to protect habitat, erecting nesting platforms and financing projects to remove lead sinkers and other discarded fishing gear from lakes.
“There were a lot of us throwing out ideas,” Evers said. “And I threw out the idea, why not restore loons to areas that they used to breed in Massachusetts?”
Nobody had ever attempted to translocate loon chicks like he was proposing, but Evers says he was”pretty sure” the idea would work. He was confident a loon’s concept of “home” isn’t established at birth, but rather, when it learns to fly.
When chicks leave their lake for their first migration, “they probably look down — ‘This is where I’m at.’ — and that’s what gets imprinted on their brains,” he says. “This is the place to come back, this is home.”
In 2013, the nonprofit Ricketts Conservation Foundation agreed to fund a pilot project to test the theory, and between 2015 and 2017, BRI captured 24 chicks from Maine and upstate New York and released them in southeastern Massachusetts. Then they waited.
After fledging, loons spend two consecutive years on the ocean bulking up and growing their adult plumage; Evers calls this the loons’ “teenager phase.” But many loons don’t survive this period, and biologists expect only about 40% of 3 year olds to return to a lake. In the pilot project, nine of the translocated chicks — or about 38% — returned to Massachusetts.
“That was right on point with what we’d see in the wild,” Evers says. “We were very happy about that.”
After the success of the pilot, state and federal officials agreed to use a portion of the oil spill settlement money to keep the work going. This summer marked the first phase of that new project, as well as an important milestone: one of the previously translocated chicks had a chick of its own, on a lake in Fall River.
BRI plans to release more loons in southeastern Massachusetts next summer, and then in 2022, they’ll start bringing chicks from Maine to lakes in the Berkshires. By the time the project is complete, approximately 60 more loons will call Massachusetts home.
As bugs flit across the surface of a small lake in southern Maine, BRI biologist Lucas Savoy steers a small boat away from the shoreline. The air temperature is just above freezing, and the sound of crickets and coyotes echoes loudly in the distance.
In the bow of the boat, Evers sits, a net across his lap and a pair of binoculars around his neck. To his left, Jim Paruk, an ornithology professor at St. James College, and a longtime friend of Evers, points out a muskrat swimming by.
Though barely a quarter full, the moon is bright and rising rapidly in the sky, so they need to work quickly to capture a loon.
They head first to the cove where a local resident said she saw a loon family earlier in the day. Paruk scans the area with the spotlight. No birds.
As Savoy drives the boat to another area of the lake, Paruk and Evers joke about all the times they’ve stayed out until 3 or 4 a.m. trying to catch and band adult loons. One of them is whispering when a loon suddenly calls out.
In a flash, Paruk has the spotlight on the source of the sound. About 40 feet away two adults and two chicks are illuminated. BRI biologists only capture loons from families with two chicks, so this is exactly what they were looking for.
The adults let out a series of loud staccato sounds called a “tremolo,” which is their way of saying, “Leave us alone!” Savoy slows down the boat, and Evers hits play on the bird call machine, which emits a series of long wail calls.
After a while, one of the chicks breaks away from the family, and Paruk focuses the spotlight on it. Blinded and disoriented, it starts swimming toward the boat.
One of the parents tremolos again — louder this time — but the chick doesn’t change direction. Evers picks up the net and gets ready. The best chance of catching a chick is the first encounter, and sure enough, with a quick scoop, he has the bird in the net.
Every capture is different. Sometimes the chicks flail and scream in distress. Other times, they’re quiet. This bird is somewhere in between: It lets out a few nasal whimpers but seems relatively calm. One of its parents, meanwhile, continues to tremolo frantically.
At about 6 weeks, the captured loon is the size of a duck. She has gray feathers and a little brown fuzz still left on her head. As Evers works to untangle her from the net, she whimpers a little more and tries to bite his fingers. After getting her out, he sits her on his lap and wraps a towel around her body. Unable to see her surroundings, she goes quiet and sits still.
Back on land, the team puts the chick in a special carrying crate and brings her to a nearby parking lot, where a wildlife veterinarian examines her and takes blood samples. She looks healthy, he says.
From there, the bird is driven across two state lines in an air-conditioned truck to the Assawompset Pond Complex in Lakeville, Massachusetts. She’ll spend the next few weeks in a 16-by-8-foot partially submerged pen, until her wings are fully developed and she’s ready to fly.
Those involved in the project readily admit that it never feels good to capture a wild animal, especially a young one, and bring it into captivity. But they say the end goal makes it worth it.
“To non-science people it all kind of sounds bad, but we’re really just trying to better the population,” says BRI’s Shannon Wesson. “It’s stressful during the transition period, but in the long-run, it’s going to be better for the loons.”
Her colleague, Ericka Griggs, adds that by the time they take a bird from its parents, the chicks are nearly independent. By raising them in captivity, she says, BRI is actually helping more young loons survive their first summer.
In the pens, the birds get plenty of fish and medical care if they need it, she says. Plus, they’re safe from predators like eagles, which frequently go after young loons.
Griggs and Wesson are part of a rotating three-person team that monitors the penned chicks from sunrise to sunset. Much of the day is pretty uneventful, if not outright boring, they admit. But occasionally someone will walk by and ask what in the world those cage-things are in the water.
When they explain the project to passersby, “every single person has been excited,” Griggs says. “It’s interesting that most of Massachusetts isn’t familiar with loon calls because they haven’t been here for over 100 years… But everyone is happy about [the prospect] and it’s so awesome to hear.”
You often hear people who live on a lake talk about what “their loons” are doing, or tell stories about watching an adult swim with a gray puffy newborn chick on its back. People, it seems, are just captivated by loons.
“They’re a large bird, and their plumage is dramatic. They’re easy to see. They have very interesting vocalizations, and their call carries for miles,” says Massachusetts State Ornithologist Andrew Vitz. “They’re just one of those species that really represents wilderness.”
He’s excited about BRI’s project and calls it an opportunity to improve wildlife habitat and water quality, and to further conservation efforts overall.
“Loons are like eagles. People are just pulled to them and want to help,” he says. Restoring them to their historic range could “galvanize conservation actions” and encourage environmental stewardship throughout the state.
The birds are also very sensitive to toxins like mercury and lead, which means they’re great indicators of water pollution.
“The chance to create entire populations of loons in Massachusetts is essentially unique to Massachusetts. We have large areas that have suitable habitat and no nesting pairs. You’re not going to find that in Maine and New Hampshire, not even in Vermont,” he says. “They are also a native species, and because of that they’re worth protecting.”
Elizabeth James-Perry, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe and a former marine scientist with its Tribal Historic Preservation Office, couldn’t agree more.
“From a Wampanoag perspective, loons are really important, and they always have been really important,” she says. “Beings that can fly and swim and dive and be on land are considered pretty amazing, and they’re afforded a certain respect as communicators between the realms — between the air and the water, between the air and the land.”
Much of Wampanoag culture — art, music, dance, stories — is based on the animals her ancestors watched and admired, she says. And as coastal tribe, “there are really close ties that we observe to beings in our waters that aren’t easy to explain — they’re actually considered real relations, real extended family members.” Loons are one of these special animals.
As a native woman, James-Perry says she feels the loons’ absence acutely every time she doesn’t hear them on a lake. And as a scientist, she says she can’t help but wonder what advantages restoration might bring.
Consider the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park, she says. Over the last 25 years, they have played a tremendous role in stabilizing the ecosystem. They’ve improved the health of elk and deer populations, and helped facilitate the return of beavers, songbirds and willows. They’ve even affected the flow of rivers.
“Living in New England as an Indigenous person is like holding your breath,” she says. “You’d like to go outside and just feel like the air is completely clean and full of the natural sounds you expect and hope for.”
But, she adds, learning about this restoration project, and seeing people take conservation seriously, feels like letting out some of that breath.
Just after sunrise on a foggy November morning, BRI biologist Lucas Savoy stands in a small boat and peers into one of the loon pens. The chick inside is about 10 weeks old and ready for release.
Savoy peels back the netting atop the pen, and with a gentle scooping motion, captures the bird. Back in the boat, he wraps her head and body in a towel and puts her in the lap of a local volunteer. The bird manages to kick off part of the covering, and the volunteer, smiling, says she had no idea young loons were so strong.
Savoy laughs a little and nods to his colleague, Emily Fellows, who starts up the boat’s engine. She docks it on the other side of the lake, and they bring the bird onshore.
Savoy weighs the chick, takes a blood sample and puts colorful identification bands around her legs so they can track it. She looks good, he says: “There’s just a tiny bit more growing to do. Its flight feathers are almost 95% grown in, so it won’t be long before this bird can fly.”
By now, the sun is peeking out above the treeline, and a thick mist evaporates off the water. Savoy carries the loon into the pond, and hands it to the volunteer.
She squats and puts the bird on the surface of the water. It lets out a little tremolo, and she releases her grip. Suddenly free, the loon begins to swim away, calling out occasionally for other birds.
“This is the best part,” Savoy whispers. “It feels really good to let them go.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.