The Loon Lady
Judy McIntyre's definitive work on the great northern diver
by Christine Jerome
In 1975, when Judy McIntyre presented her dissertation to the University of Minnesota, her thesis committee was probably prepared for the quality of her research on loons. What they may not have been prepared for was the quality of her humor. “Anyone who has seen a loon egg is apt to remember it first for its size,” she wrote. “Any female loon who has ever laid one no doubt remembers it for the same reason.”
To their credit, the academicians overlooked her irreverence and granted her doctorate in zoology. And well they might have: she had done first-rate work that was sorely needed. It’s hard to believe today, when loons decorate every other sweatshirt and coffee mug, but twenty years ago much of the data on these handsome diving birds was anecdotal at best. “For a long time Judy’s dissertation was one of only five or six documents that had good information on loon biology,” says Jeff Fair, for eleven years the director of New Hampshire’s Loon Preservation Committee. “It was our loon bible.”
In a way it’s not surprising that Judy McIntyre did such exceptional work: she was not your average student. For one thing, she was forty-five years old when she earned that degree, and while doing her research she was also raising three sons. Oh, yes, and she was also an interior decorator.
“I just fall into things,” McIntyre says with a slight Minnesota accent, and at first blush that statement seems true. As an undergraduate at Carleton College, in Northfield, Minnesota, she majored in French, but along the way fell into decorating and established a business in Minneapolis. That’s where she met Pat, a genial giant with a leprechaun’s face who’s as laid-back as Judy is intense. The two were married in 1957 and eventually settled into a house that sat next to a five-hundred-acre marsh. They might still be there too had McIntyre been a little less curious about the natural world. For like most wetlands, the marsh was alive with birds, and while Judy could identify many species, some baffled her.
You or I might have bought a field guide or joined a birding club, but McIntyre’s approach was characteristically more rigorous. She enrolled in an ornithology course at the University of Minnesota, and liked it so well she went back the next semester. When she heard the school was offering a summer course on avian behavior at its field station in Lake Itasca State Park, in northern Minnesota, she signed up for that as well. She had to take her kids along, which was not at all what the school had in mind, but the authorities relented, and mother and sons lived in two tents all summer. It worked out just fine. It was at Lake Itasca that McIntyre began studying loons, and she showed such aptitude that she was asked to return the following year. At that point she decided to go back to school to do graduate work in biology.
Though it may seem to McIntyre that she just falls into things, there is truly nothing passive or unfocused about her. Her energy level is remarkable. Jack Barr, a Canadian biologist who often works with her, describes her as an outboard at full throttle and himself as a water-skier hanging on for dear life. If things happen to McIntyre it’s usually because she makes them happen. Like attending medical school to learn anatomy (“I’ve done most things in my life because they were fun”), which earned her a visiting professorship at Syracuse University, which in turn led to a tenure-track position at the school’s Utica College campus, where she now teaches gross anatomy, neuroanatomy and neurophysiology.
While she was forging an academic career she was also building a reputation as one of the country’s premier loon researchers, with fieldwork all over the United States and Canada on such topics as Gavia immer‘s wintering behavior, its predators, habitat requirements, adaptability to human-recreational pressures, the value of artificial islands as nest sites, the structure and role of loon calls, mercury contamination in eggs and the effect of the Exxon Valdez disaster on Alaska’s small population of yellow-billed loons. Her papers appear in scientific journals, but she’s also a good enough writer that mainstream publications such as National Geographic ask her to write for them. In 1988 the University of Minnesota published The Common Loon: Spirit of Northern Lakes, her summary of twenty years of research and the best guide for those who want more than a coffee-table book about the species.
A tireless advocate for loons, in 1970 she told a newspaper interviewer in Minneapolis that it would be wonderful to have the public’s help in monitoring the state’s population. When more than a thousand people responded, she set up Project Loon Watch, an annual census that has since been copied elsewhere. In organizing this effort she did a typically thorough job: she went to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife expert to learn how to devise good survey forms, designed and marketed loon notepaper and posters to finance her mailings, and set up the nonprofit Oikos Research Foundation to handle donations. (Oikos, Greek for “house,” is the root word for “ecology.”) When she left Minnesota she turned over the program to the state, but Oikos continues to handle financial support for her research and educational projects.
In addition, McIntyre has organized international conferences, travels and speaks extensively and is an emeritus trustee of the North American Loon Fund, an umbrella research-and-education institution. One of her most effective tools is Hello, I’m a Loon!, a tape-and-slide show she put together for children.
Since 1977 the Stillwater Reservoir, just north of the Fulton Chain of Lakes, has been McIntyre’s summer field base. Her studies there began with a request from Mercer Industries, which owns Stillwater’s dam, for an assessment of the dam’s effect on loon populations. (It turns out that rising water from spring runoff is more likely to affect loons than periodic drawdowns, because their nests, built right at water’s edge, are especially vulnerable to flooding.) Although she fulfilled that contract long ago, Mercer continues to help finance her work. McIntyre hopes to amass thirty years’ worth of data on Stillwater’s loons. Yet in addition to monitoring the local population—at between nine and seventeen pairs, the largest for any lake in the state—she is usually engaged in other projects, developing theories that she may test elsewhere.
McIntyre has done, extensive research on loon calls and how these sounds are affected by the acoustic properties of the environment—wind, temperature, humidity and so on. Adult loons make a variety of sounds—among them hoots, wails and tremolos (the “laughter” that sounds so maniacal)—but only males give the distinctive yodel. McIntyre has recorded loon calls and played them back to other loons to try to determine whether changes in, say, amplitude of a phrase will al ter the content of the message and thus the responses of other loons. Responses do vary, but precisely why they do remains a mystery. As Mc Intyre is the first to admit, no one knows what loons are saying to each other. In the course of this work, she discovered that Adirondack birds have lower voices than loons in Minnesota or Saskatchewan. (New York birds also tend to lay larger eggs than those in most other regions.)
Another of her studies has entailed the examination of reservoirs as loon habitat. In 1979, McIntyre compared old records with recent ones and determined that in the past forty to seventy years, some thirty-five percent of New York State’s natural lakes have lost their nesting loons. This trend is in keeping with a longer-term one that has seen loon populations throughout the country retreating northward in response to human encroachment and habitat loss. Yet at the same time that some types of habitat have disappeared, other kinds have been created.
Environmentalists and white-water enthusiasts may decry our penchant for damming rivers, but if you were to poll the loon community, you’d get a decisive thumbs-up—well, perhaps an enthusiastic foot wag—for the reservoirs that result. Dams make habitat for loons (and for the fish they feed on), and that habitat is of high quality. That’s because most reservoir shorelines are off-limits to development, which means that loons can find the privacy so critical for nesting and incubation. And fewer people translate into fewer raccoons and gulls, which are primary loon-nest predators. Finally, reservoirs act as critical staging areas where birds can rest, feed and socialize during migration.
Stillwater is an excellent case in point. In the beginning there was the Beaver River meandering through a shallow valley on its way from Lake Lila to the Black River. In the late 1880s a dam was thrown across the Beaver and later it was raised, and then raised again. The original waterway was inundated, along with four adjacent ponds, so that today the dam contains sixty-three hundred acres of water in a man-made lake that stretches almost eight miles. More than forty islands have been created (loons prefer islands for nesting), along with 117 miles of shoreline with plenty of the protected shallows in which loons need to raise their chicks. From 1977 to 1991 a total of ninety-seven young were raised on Stillwater; according to McIntyre’s calculations the original river and four ponds could have produced a maximum of thirty-two fledglings during the same period.
Nesting success is increasingly critical for loons as we head into the twenty-first century. A hundred years ago William H. H. “Adirondack” Murray and his fellow sportsmen used loons for target practice, but this cruel amusement was ultimately outlawed. Still, if we had deliberately set out to extirpate these magnificent creatures, we could hardly have done a better job. Offshore oil spills and acid rain have poisoned the water in which they live. It’s not only that there’s little or no food in acidified lakes: acidification converts mercury from an inorganic to an organic form that works its way up through the food chain. The loon is a top-of-the-heap predator, which means that mercury becomes concentrated in its tissues. The effects of methylmercury on the central nervous system are insidious: behavior becomes erratic; coordination and vision are impaired, which means the bird can no longer catch fish and must rely on slow-moving crustaceans, which are less nutritious. Large die-offs in wintering populations are thought to be caused by starvation as a result of heavy-metal poisoning.
There are other challenges. Commercial and sportfishing are also dangerous for loons, which become fatally entangled in nets or poisoned by lead sinkers. And then there’s the matter of human encroachment on Northern lakes. Development in itself isn’t the problem; loons will nest right next to man-made structures if human traffic is minimal during the incubation phase. Moreover, McIntyre’s work has shown that in many cases loons can adapt to human presence. They may abandon favorite nesting islands if they’re overrun by campers, but if there’s sufficient habitat on the mainland they’ll set up shop in quiet bays that offer protection from wind and waves. They can even tolerate heavy powerboat use, as long as wakes aren’t dangerously high and the boats keep moving. It’s when the boats stop, when canoeists and fishermen go poking along the shore in these backwaters, that nesting birds become alarmed enough to slip into the water and thereby expose their eggs to predation or cold.
Harassment, whether inadvertent or deliberate, is an even greater concern when parents and young move to open water for feeding. On some lakes the crush on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July weekends is so great that volunteers station themselves near loon territories to warn boaters away. (In New Hampshire, these guardians call themselves Loon Rangers.) And now there’s a new problem: jet skis.
“Jet skis are the greatest threat to loons in a long time,” says McIntyre. “Actually, it’s not just loons; jet skis are hard on all waterfowl with young.”
Fast and highly maneuverable, these motorized playthings can roar into the shallows and disturb incubating birds. Worse, they can outrun families, either killing birds outright or separating parents from chicks. When families are threatened, parent birds rear up and race across the water to distract attention while chicks dive for hiding spots in the shallows. During these critical minutes the unguarded chicks are vulnerable to attacks by large fish and snapping turtles.
“If you care about loons,” McIntyre advises, “enjoy them from a distance. Listen to them. And understand that most of the time when you see them penguin dancing or calling excitedly, it’s because they’re trying to protect their nest or their young.”
Memorial Day seemed a long way off when I caught up with Judy and Pat McIntyre in Utica last January. An ice storm had closed the schools and fog shrouded the city. Their home, high on a hillside, turned out to be a strikingly modern three-story open-core structure that even on a dark day seemed filled with warmth and light. (Pat is doing the finish work himself, now that he’s retired from his career as a sales representative.) The house is full of salvaged treasures they’ve accumulated over the years—Mexican tiles underfoot, wainscoting and paneling from a former Presbyterian church. Judy’s decorator’s eye is evident in bright fabrics and collections of masks and glassware. Loon images are everywhere, in Inuit art and sculpture, in contemporary drawings and in nineteenth-century ornithological prints. Talk flowed, about their sons, now in their thirties and living on the West Coast; about the Stillwater camp they were lucky enough to buy in the late seventies; about Pat’s brush with hypothermia when the engine in their boat died four miles from camp and there was only one paddle. We talked about- loons (“I don’t know why it’s such a surprise to people, but each one is an individual, just the way we are”) and about the work Judy was trying to finish during the semester break—final revisions for a loon monograph in the prestigious Birds of America series of the American Ornithologists’ Union, part of a book on grebes and loons for Oxford University Press and a paper on Alaska’s yellow-billed loons. In March she planned to attend a loon conference in California and give speeches in San Francisco and Chicago. She had just returned the night before from a quick recruiting tour through the Northeast, representing Syracuse University to potential students and their parents.
We talked too about the coming summer. I had assumed that the Stillwater research was done primarily by graduate students, but, as it turns out, the McIntyres work pretty much by themselves. Judy describes her husband with a laugh as “my equipment man,” but his contribution has been significant, from capturing birds for banding to photography to wrestling forty-pound nests from the shore to the safety of floating platforms. (Unlike New Hampshire loons, the Stillwater birds seem not to care for artificial nesting islands. “We joke that they’re picky New York birds,” Judy says. “They want gazebos.”)
This year the McIntyres will resume their latest project, compiling a bottom map of each loon’s territory on the reservoir. It’s been suggested that loons sleep over the deepest part of lakes, feed in irregularly contoured shallows and socialize over slopes. Once she knows where each of those bottom types is, Judy will be able to see whether the predicted activity occurs in the predicted spot. On summer mornings when the weather’s calm enough, the McIntyres load their venerable aluminum runabout with depth-finding equipment and head off to work. In her small home office, a tote bag stuffed with rolls of printouts attests to their progress.
While Judy and Pat monitor the Stillwater loons, volunteer John Nolan, of Cleveland, will be checking on the birds at Lows Lake, where rebuilding of the dam recently raised the water level six inches and inundated many nesting sites. Only three nests were active there in 1994, despite the presence of ten territorial pairs.
Although she’ll soon be sixty-five, retirement isn’t in the cards for Judy McIntyre. There’s just so much for her to do. She’s interested in the common loons of Iceland (“They’re very shy, possibly because they’ve been hunted for a long time”), and in learning through DNA testing whether this population was isolated from other groups by glaciation. She’d also like to use DNA testing to illuminate the relationship between common and yellow-billed loons, which are quite similar. In fact, she’d like to understand the early history of the whole loon family and how it evolved. For instance, red-throated loons differ from common loons in appearance, voice, even molting pattern, so does this mean they’re the most primitive members of the family or the most advanced? (“And please,” she says, rolling her eyes, “don’t write that loons are the oldest birds in North America. I don’t know where that came from. They’re no older than cranes or ducks or herons.”) Lastly, she’d like to know where Stillwater’s loons spend their winters. One of her banded birds was recovered a few years ago off the Long Island coast, but that’s all she has to go on.
Talk and laughter alternated as evening fell during my visit, and I came away with a pleasant sense of paradox, of a woman who is at once patient and impulsive, shy and directive, serious and brimming with humor. In the end, it’s the laughter you remember. “Her sense of humor makes her a better scientist,” says Jeff Fair. “It’s a willingness to realize that your knowledge has increased even if the damn loon you’ve been watching doesn’t surface again. Barry Lopez calls it a ‘tolerance for mystery,’ a willingness to admit you don’t have all the answers. Nobody has all the answers. But Judy gave us the latticework on which to build a loon science.”