On July 5, 2023

Lake Rescue celebrates first loon chick in recorded history

Fishing line removed from mother’s beak

By Lisa Hamm-Greenawalt

A loon couple that has made Lake Rescue in Ludlow its home for several few years finally succeeded in hatching an egg in June, producing the first successful chick ever recorded on the 200-acre lake in Ludlow.

The adult loons, large birds with striking dappled black-and-white feathers, blue necklace markings, and a haunting variety of vocalizations, had built a nest in the same spot last year, on the shoreline of a small island protected by the roots of a fallen tree. The egg laid in 2022 failed to produce a chick, though, and was likely the victim of a predator, speculated Eric Hanson, the biologist who coordinates the Vermont Loon Conservation Project for the nonprofit Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE). A bald eagle couple has maintained a nest for years in a tall pine tree above the same cove as the loons’ nest, and an osprey couple has also been frequently sighted in the area. 

In May 2023, the loons reestablished their nest in the same spot and laid another egg, prompting a VCE representative to install floating signs warning boaters to keep their distance. A fishing line was observed entangled in the beak of one of the loon parents sitting on the nest, but biologists chose not to approach the bird for fear of provoking the loons to abandon the nest. 

Instead, they waited, and on the afternoon of June 2, Lake Rescue neighbors noticed a fluffy brown chick swimming with its parents. 

A loon spotter on the lake sent Hanson close-up photos of the entangled beak of the adult bird as it was swimming with its loonlet, and Hanson made the decision to attempt a removal on Friday night, June 24. In cooperation with the Lake Rescue Association and aided by another lake resident, John Neal, who lent his dock and fishing boat located near where the loons had been sighted on the lake, the operation to free the afflicted bird was launched at around 9:30 p.m. 

“We waited for almost complete darkness and found one adult and one chick in the middle of the lake almost right away,” said Hanson. “Eloise Girard (Vermont Center for Ecostudies biologist) shone a powerful spotlight on the two birds, while PhD student Ericka Griggs drove us in very slowly. The birds were both confused and alert in the light as we approached. Luckily, the loon with the fishing line was with the chick. This capture technique works well when there is a chick present, as the adult will more likely stay nearby.” Hanson gave little hoots and chick whistles to draw the birds’ attention, which made it easier to catch them with an 8-foot handled salmon dip net. He scooped up the adult and brought it into the boat for an “exciting moment of getting it under control.” Girard flung a towel over the bird’s head to calm it down and held the loon securely in her lap while Ava Purdy, a St. Johnsbury high school student, shone the spotlight so the biologists could pick up the loonlet.

The birds were taken back to Neal’s dock to assess the fishing line, which was wrapped around the loon’s bill and head. “We didn’t see any line going down the throat and the tongue was not damaged, both important considerations for the long-term outlook for this loon,” Hanson said. “Once the line was cut free, we set to work taking leg and bill measurements, placed color bands on the legs, and obtained blood and feather samples for mercury testing and parasite analysis.” Griggs, who has worked with loons for four years and is studying parasites in loons at UVM, will use various genetic testing techniques that can identify malaria and another parasite hosted by black flies. Placing color bands on the legs of loons enables scientists to track them throughout their lives, learn when and how they gain and lose territories, and monitor their populations.

Hanson said scientists ascertained that the adult loon with the fishing line was the female based on its smaller size. This was confirmed when the other adult came near the humans and yodeled, which only males do. Hanson said that since the female was becoming hot and stressed, scientists opted not to weigh her and instead released the mother and chick together. “The male was just out of sight in the darkness, and after a few minutes, the family was reunited,” said Hanson.

He explained that removal of the fishing line was vital to the survival of the entire loon family. “Hopefully, she is now feeling much better with her head not tangled up in monofilament,” said Hanson. “It’s fortunate she could eat, preen, and tend to nest and chick duties these past months, as there is often nest failure and chick loss when one of the parents cannot assist with all the parenting duties.” Hanson said male and female loons share 50/50 in all aspects of nesting and chick rearing.

Hanson, who has been conducting research on the Common Loon since 1992, has advice for how to observe the loon family in a way that won’t disrupt them. “If you go look for them, use binoculars to watch them and please do not pursue them for a good look,” he said. “Sit quietly and they might swim right by. Anglers, please reel in if loons are diving nearby, and make sure you are not using any lead tackle.” Hanson said the Vermont Center for Ecostudies will be putting up collection tubes at 20 to 30-plus boat access areas in July to collect lead tackle and discarded fishing line.

The Black River Action team (BRAT) also plans to install a fishing line-capture tube later this summer at the Fishing Access on Lake “to help promote keeping our waterways free of waste line and tackle,” said Kelly Stettner, BRAT director.

“If the loons come near you this summer, keep an eye at the rear end of the adults, and you might see the plastic orange and silver metal USFWS band on the right leg and an orange band with black stripe and white band with black dot on the left leg,” Hanson said. He said the band combination is unique to this loon, now one of thousands of banded loons across North America. The USFWS band has a unique 10-digit number on it as well.

The Vermont Loon Conservation Project is a joint effort between the Vermont Center for Ecostudies and the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. The VCE advances the conservation of wildlife across the Americas through research, monitoring, and community engagement. The Common Loon, formerly endangered, has returned to a stable population of breeding loons in Vermont, an example of citizens and scientists working together in conservation and one of VCE’s most gratifying accomplishments. Learn more about their efforts at  vtecostudies.org.

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