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October 2013

Loonscape

The bird that defines wilderness has been reviled and revered, threatened and restored. David Sommerstein joins a First Lake research safari and reports on the present challenges and uncertain future of Adirondack loons

I held a loon chick hostage in my lap for this story. It was early September. You almost have to provoke an adult loon that late in the summer if you want to catch it. At that moment in their life cycles, loons are losing their territorial attack instinct. Soon they’ll fly off to their winter fishing spots on the Atlantic coast, leaving their loon “tweens” to fend for themselves and find their own way to warmer climes.

Just six weeks earlier everything was different. Across the Adirondacks, we humans were enjoying one of the most endearing sights nature has to offer: a proud loon gliding across the water’s surface with a fluffy chick huddled on its back. In mid-July, an adult loon will do almost anything to protect that chick. It’ll bullet straight at a boat entering its territory, churning high on the water—“penguin-walking,” as experts call it. And that makes them easy pickings for loon catchers. But not in September.

It’s nine o’clock at night, and darkness has fallen on First Lake, near the village waterfront of Old Forge. I’m with a crew that catches, bands and tracks loons across the Adirondack Park. Over more than a decade, they’ve learned that Adirondack loon pairs return to the same lake year after year, like snowbird couples returning to their summer cab­in. And they’ve watched loons survive acid rain and other threats, and even thrive today.

Nina Schoch has led the effort as the coordinator of the Biodiversity Research Institute’s Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation. Her team has caught and banded more than 200 loons since 1998. When she started, she didn’t know much about loons at all, “except they were a cool-looking bird that made neat calls,” she confesses. A veterinarian and wildlife rehabilitator by training, Schoch has had a front-row seat to the intimate lives of these birds. She’s watched the same birds year after year, learned their different personalities, and seen them raise their families. And doing what we’re about to do—capture a loon and hold it in our hands—is nothing short of “magical,” she says.

Schoch spreads out a map on the hood of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) truck that brought us here. Her partner, Gary Lee, the loon sentinel in this area, leans in and shines his flashlight on two spots. “The one pair’s in this bay,” he whispers, “and the other went around to that bay, what they call Cohen’s Bay, because Cohen used to own the point there.” He also points out the spot where he saw a loon that appeared to have a broken leg—“Pretty sure he was hit by a boat,” Lee says.

The trajectory of the common loon population should be a tremendous wildlife recovery success story. Decades ago, Adi­rondackers used to shoot loons for sport because the birds ate the same fish they liked to catch. DDT poisoned all bird populations in the 1940s and ’50s. “There were no nesting pairs of loons on the Fulton Chain 20 years ago, not one,” Lee affirms. Last summer, almost every numbered lake along the chain was home to a loon couple, its nest and, on average, two chicks per year. Across the Adirondacks the loon population has more than doubled since the 1980s, to about 2,000 today.

But there’s a new threat that tempers the good news. Mercury, the highly toxic metal, is floating great distances on air currents and falling into the aquatic systems here. It builds up in the food chain, up to the top predators in the system—in­cluding the common loon. Re­searchers say that makes the loon a perfect indicator species of how mercury affects all organisms in the ecosystem, including humans. And the findings so far are not good.

A report released last summer by the Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI), based in Gorham, Maine, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority found more than half of male loons in the Adirondack Park have a moderate to high risk of mercury poisoning. Some birds tested have double the safe amount of mercury in their blood.

What happens is that mercury turns loons into bad parents. They produce fewer eggs. They spend less time on their nests keeping those eggs warm. They don’t take care of the chicks as much when they’re hatched. Sometimes they abandon those fluffy critters altogether.

Tonight, our goal is to catch more adult loons, test their blood for mercury and band them with high-tech geolocators so they can be tracked year-round.

Author William H. H. Murray wrote in 1869 that loons “are the shyest and most expert swimmers of all waterfowl.” He was a sportsman, not a scientist, but his observation is spot-on. It took groundbreaking loon researchers like Judy McIntyre years to develop a stealth operation that could literally net birds for study.

It takes three people—a boat driver, a spotter with a flashlight and a netter. Loons have excellent eyesight, so a moonless or cloud-covered night, like this one, is indispensable. The spotter shines the light directly in a loon’s eyes, blinding it, so the boat can get close enough for the netter to swoop in.

It was 75 degrees and sunny earlier, but now we’re all bundled in fleece and raincoats as the DEC motorboat rumbles southeast through the dark toward Dog Island. Our captain, DEC Region 5 wildlife manager Lance Durfey, switches to an electric motor. Schoch, her shoulder-length wavy hair stuffed under a winter hat, furrows her brow in concentration. She sweeps a floodlight back and forth, the beam combing the water’s dark surface. The warm glow of lakeshore living rooms reminds us we’re close to civilization. Still, we hear that iconic sound of the wild echo occasionally across the lake. Schoch turns on an electronic loon call with four different sounds: the wail (the long haunting coooo-oooo loons use to locate one another), the tremolo (distress), the yodel (the males’ territorial screech) and the hoot (the loon version of “Hey, what’s up?”). The fake calls are answered by real loons getting closer, and they’re repeated by their brethren across the ridge on Little Moose Lake. We’re silent, expectant and a little anxious.

Gary Lee stands silhouetted against the lights, holding the long pole of the net like a staff, sort of a Moses of the loons. “There’s the chick!” whispers Schoch urgently as she freezes it in the floodlight. The electric motor of the boat sighs as we float closer. Lee holds the net just above the surface and waits. And waits. Then—splash!—the boat teeters, the loon squawks and a chorus of other loons yodel warnings in the darkness. Schoch says to me, “David, do you want a chick on your lap?” But it isn’t really a question and, before I know it, she plops the chick on my rain pants. “Oh my gosh, such a little thing,” I gasp to no one in particular.

The chick’s about the size of a house cat, and it feels about the same. Its gray down is as soft as the finest fur. Schoch holds its head so it won’t turn around and bite me, then she starts petting its neck, from where it meets its body to the top of its head. “Chicks are kind of like owls,” Schoch says. (Right, we all know how to pet an owl.) “They like to have their heads rubbed. It will put them to sleep and keep them calm.” I caress the soft down and, sure enough, the muscles in the chick’s neck relax and its head droops down. I feel its breathing become easy and rhythmic.

More loons scream anxiously a few hundred feet away. “You hear those birds tremolo-ing over there? They’re upset, obviously,” says Schoch, as she grabs the floodlight. “I’m going to go start lighting again.”

We have our hostage.

If Nina Schoch is the scientist behind the Adirondack loon monitoring operation, Gary Lee is the muscle. And you need muscle to immobilize an adult loon to measure it and take its blood. They can weigh 10 to 14 pounds. They have a serrated bill that can tear anything it clamps down on, and they put up a fight. “Anything they can get a hold of,” says Lee, “they’ll bite it.”

Loons have bitten Lee on the forearm and the thigh. They’ve gnawed on his back pocket and hem of his jacket. A male gave him “a pretty good gash” one night on Henderson Lake near Tahawus. It was a bird they had tried to catch the previous year. “He kind of knew us,” Lee remembers. “He penguin-walked right up to the boat and threw a ball of water in my face. We got him in the boat around three o’clock in the morning and while I was holding him, he nailed me pretty good.”

Gary Lee is 69. He has soft blue eyes, a gray beard and a sturdy build, the product of more than 30 years patrolling the Moose River Recreation Area as a New York State forest ranger. Awards, trophies and a plaque recognizing his induction into the New York State Outdoorsmen Hall of Fame adorn his home office in Inlet. Lee hunts, fishes and traps—he caught 69 beaver and 19 otter last year—and he spends much of his winters in retirement snapping photos of eagles and other birds of prey from a blind he set up by a pond on his woodsy property. He bands hundreds of birds that feast at feeders scattered around his yard and records the data meticulously in journals on his desk. He loves birds.

Lee dedicates his summers to loons. He’s caught more than 70 of them, five in one night once. He monitors 22 breeding pairs of loons on 15 lakes. Call him the loon whisperer. “I talk to all my birds,” he says. “I go in the same canoe every time, same clothes. They know me. They talk to me when I go out there.” He also sets out a dozen platforms every year to induce new loon pairs to establish nests on lakes that haven’t had loons in decades. (Schoch disagrees with this technique. She believes it encourages people to meddle too much in loon behavior. A 2007 study found platforms can cause increased stress and aggressive behavior among male loons.)

To hear Lee talk about “his” loons is to hear a man who has a deep, personal relationship with the natural world, who sees loon behavior as ongoing, often anthropomorphized, stories. He knows the female on Mitchell Pond sticks her banded foot in the air when he paddles near, “as if to say, ‘OK, you got me. Now leave me the hell alone.’” He knows the female on Darts Lake was spotted wintering in Tampa Bay. And he knows the male on Twitchell Lake was X-rayed with a fish hook in its belly. Lee calls him the “fish hook male.”

Several years ago Lee started noticing that some of his loon pairs were guarding one egg instead of the usual two per summer. Researchers still haven’t figured out how to determine the age of a loon, so he thought the loon parents might just be getting older. But he also suspected that higher mercury levels in the lakes could have something to do with it.

The researchers from the Biodiversity Research Institute were using hard data to document similar changes. In BRI’s study released last summer, Adirondack Loons: Sentinels of Mercury Pollution in New York’s Aquatic Ecosystems, they found that 21 percent of the males and eight percent of the females have mercury levels high enough to impact their reproductive success. The loons with the highest levels were in the southwestern corner of the park.

“Mercury is a neurotoxin,” says Schoch. “So it makes the loons depressed and lethargic and they don’t have the energy to defend their territories well. They don’t get up on the nests as much. They just don’t have the energy like they normally would to care for the nest and the chicks.”

Study coauthor and BRI director David Evers says mercury is dampening the overall good news of the loon’s rebound over the last three decades. “There’s a recovery going on now across the region,” says Evers, “but it would have been stronger recovery, and I still wonder, will that recovery continue if mercury is a stressor? What happens when other stressors come into play?”

Those additional stressors could be anything from lead sinkers to human encroachments to climate change. In fact, BRI is investigating what Evers calls “a perplexing” decline in the adult loon population on the Rangeley Lakes in northern Maine. Evers hypothesizes it could somehow be related to red tides in the Atlantic Ocean. BRI is seeking funding for further study.

Evers says the implications of mercury pollution go far beyond loons. Loons are a good indicator species because they eat at the top of the food chain and live up to 30 years. “If it’s affecting loons, it’s affecting other birds that are eating fish regularly from those same lakes,” he says. “And I think you can easily make that next step that that can impact our own health, especially if we’re regularly catching and eating fish from those same lakes.”

The mercury comes predominantly from coal-fired power plants in the Midwest. Clarkson University professor Tom Holsen has been studying mercury in the Adirondacks for more than a decade. “Prevailing winds, as we all know who live here, are from the southwest,” says Holsen, “and that’s the exact direction of the coal-fired power plants.”

In 2011 the Environmental Protection Agency finalized new rules for mercury emissions, and already dozens of coal-fired units are being shut down because they’re too costly to retrofit. Utilities say that will mean higher electricity prices. But Holsen says it should also lower mer­cury levels in Adirondack lakes over time. Now attention is turning to global mercury levels as coal continues to pow­er Asia’s economies. This fall, negotiators will work to finalize an agreement by 140 countries to reduce mercury pollution worldwide. Called the Minamata Convention, it’s named after a Japanese town where people suffered terrible mercury poisoning from an in­dustrial wastewater discharge in the 1950s.

Still, many fear the damage caused by mercury in the Adirondacks will persist. Mitch Lee, supervisor of Parks and Recreation for the town of Inlet, an Adi­rondack storyteller and Gary Lee’s son, says even if there were zero tolerance rules for mercury emissions starting today, “you’d have to laugh to think mercury would be gone from these lakes in two to three generations.”

Back on First Lake I’ve been petting the loon chick on my lap for more than half an hour. Its parents tremolo nearby, but each time we try to get closer they dive beneath the surface, sometimes right under the boat, and we have to reverse direction. Even with their chick in hand, it’s clear who’s on home turf here.

Just before 11, Schoch blinds one of the parents with her spotlight and it freezes. Time almost stops as the boat inches closer. Then Gary Lee plunges the net into the water and scoops up the bird. The night explodes with squawks and clumsy thumps as Lee wrestles the loon into his arms and tucks its bill behind his back. The bird chews on his pocket and fights to get away. “She’s trying to swim on my lap,” Lee mutters. A cold mist is just starting to fall.

The loon is a female they’ve never caught before, a bonus for a long night spent on the water. Schoch opens a toolbox containing pliers, metal bands and notebooks. She takes all kinds of measurements and samples, then straps the geolocator on one of the loon’s legs and an ID band on the other. Finally, we let the loon and its chick go. Schoch and Lee drop into their seats and take a deep breath. “I’m on a high,” Schoch sighs.

We never caught the male that night. We gave up around one in the morning as the mist turned to a chilly rain. But there was plenty of good news. That pair of loons has been breeding on First Lake for seven or eight years. They’ve chosen safe nesting spots and they’ve managed to adapt to the motorboats that whiz by. They’re almost certain to return and raise more chicks. If Schoch and Lee can catch the female again, the researchers will learn from the geolocator exactly where her winter home is, where the birds stop along their migration and more.

In fact, there’s plenty of good news in this story, but it all comes with caveats. Wildlife is cohabitating with humans’ increased recreational use of the park, but disturbances like motorboats and fishing line and lead sinkers remain threats. Bald eagles are also enjoying a comeback, but they eat loon eggs and chicks. And stricter emissions rules ap­pear likely to reduce mercury contamination, but the pollution may persist for years to come.

Nina Schoch hopes the passion for loons compels people to think more broadly about the delicate web of life the birds symbolize, and what they can do to support conservation efforts to protect them. BRI’s David Evers says the in­stitute will continue banding and monitoring loons and seeking funding for more study. “We have reversed the tide that has happened a century ago,” he says. “That’s a great thing that we should be happy about. I think we can do more. And I think some things like mercury get in the way.”

What You Can Do

Leave loons and their nests alone! Researchers have been noticing an increasing number of nest disturbances from canoeists and kayakers trying to paddle close to snap that perfect picture. Keep your distance—at least 100 feet—and use a zoom lens instead.

Participate in the Adirondack Loon Census the third Saturday in July. Thanks to Adirondack volunteers, the census has documented a 40% increase of monitored lakes with loons, from 127 lakes in 2001 to more than 200 last year.

Be a responsible angler. Recycle your fishing line, so loons and other birds don’t get caught up. Thanks to a new program this summer, you’ll find fishing line recycling containers at boat launches across the Adirondacks. Also, replace your lead sinkers if you haven’t already. A loon may die if it swallows a lead sinker. A program from 2002-2004 helped anglers swap out lead sinkers for non-lead ones at area tackle shops.

If you’re boating, slow down near loons and loon nests. A boat’s wake can swamp loon chicks and their nests, or separate them from their parents.

Keep shorelines natural so loons and other wildlife can find safe, healthy places to nest.

Related articles from our archive:

“The Loon Lady” (June 1995)

“New Loon” (December 2006)

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