The afternoon of Valentine’s Day, we received a report of 3 loons iced-in a small puddle near the west shore of Lake George, with an eagle sitting on the edge of the ice. Apparently a 4th loon had already met its demise, so it was important to rescue these trapped birds as soon as possible. Being late in the day, it was decided to attempt the rescue the following morning.
That area of the lake had just frozen in the previous week with a couple of days of below-zero temps, so the loons were trapped by quickly forming ice. We’ve had a relatively mild winter, thus some loons had wintered over on Lakes Champlain and George.
At this time of year, loons are molting out of their winter plumage and into their black and white breeding plumage. They also completely lose their flight feathers, so they are flightless for about a month until the new ones grow in. Thus, they can easily become trapped in a small pool of water if the ice forms quickly.
An ice rescue is potentially very dangerous for the humans involved. Sometimes conditions are not safe enough to attempt a rescue, so each situation is carefully evaluated and numerous safety precautions are taken. In this case, the thickness of the ice was checked at several locations and found to be 2”-6” or more, which is safe for humans to walk on.
The Loon Center has coordinated several such rescues in the past; its experience with the equipment and techniques to conduct a rescue of an iced-in loon enabled this rescue to be conducted safely and efficiently. The rescuers wear safety gear and attempt to net the birds from a canoe. For this rescue we had assistance from NYS DEC Forest Ranger Matt Savarie, who caught onto handling loons pretty quickly!
At first the loons evaded capture, diving quickly and repeatedly to avoid the nets. The hole was also larger than we’ve previously encountered, probably because three loons were keeping it open instead of one.
Then either the loons began to tire or their rescuers, Ranger Savarie and Lance Durfey, one of our summer field staff (who got usurped into this adventure), figured out the technique of catching a loon. The spectators heard Lance (a former fisheries biologist for NYS DEC) saying “You have to net it head first, kind of like a fish, or they jump out of the net.”
The first loon was finally caught, which was a bit heavier than Lance had expected, based on how the canoe rocked & the bend in the net! Good thing Lance has very good balance, been lifting weights, and years of experience netting big fish. To make matters worse, the loon wasn’t very happy about being caught, as it tried to attack Lance through the net!
Matt quickly ran over (he was on the edge of the puddle with microspikes so he wouldn’t slip on the ice), pulled Lance to shore, and helped get the loon in the bin. After bringing the first loon to us waiting at the snow-ice edge, Matt returned to the puddle to try for loon #2.
After several attempts, Lance netted the second loon into its bin and it was soon next to the first. From his slightly higher vantage point, Lance let Matt know that the third loon was headed towards him, who quickly netted it from the edge of the puddle and carried it to Lance to place in the bin.
We put the bird bins and equipment on the sleds and in the canoe to slide them back to shore, and carry them up the hill to the cars and banding equipment. We examined each loon, measured it, and banded it.
All three were adults in good body condition, and molting out of their winter plumage into their breeding colors. The two males (based on their weight, ~11# each) were regrowing their primaries and may have been capable of flight. The smaller loon (~9#) had absolutely no flight feathers at all – they had completely molted out! So it would likely be several weeks before that bird would be able to fly.
After they were measured and banded, we drove the loons to Lake Champlain where there was open water. They each swam quickly away from shore, and then gathered together and began preening. They were likely VERY relieved to be out of their predicament, and away from the eyes of the hungry eagle!
~MANY, MANY THANKS to Roger and Wendy Saks for giving us access to the lake, and to Forest Ranger Matt Savarie, our biologist Emily Prosser, and volunteers Lance Durfey, Malinda and Glen Chapman, Tim Demers, and Ellie and Cal George for their excellent assistance in this rescue!
Photo at top: Lance Durfey, (a former fisheries biologist for NYS DEC) rescues a loon on Lake George. Photo by Ellie George, courtesy of Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation
Editor’s note: See this recent article about the making of a special Hornbeck canoe that was donated to the Loon Center, and is currently being raffled off as a fundraiser.