Saturday, September 11, 2021

My Loon Friend: A Story of Trust and Healing 

loonBy Ronni Tichenor 

We have a camp on the south shore of 4th Lake, in the Fulton Chain, and early one  morning in August, I was on our dock practicing my yoga. I was about to release my Down Dog  position, when movement on the water caught my eye. It was a loon, less than ten feet off the  dock, swimming slowly by. I froze, fearing that any movement would scare it and cause it to  dive, which meant I could not see very clearly because, in my head-down position, my hair hung  over my face. The loon appeared to have a fish in its mouth—but then I thought I could see little  legs on the side, so I said, “No—it’s a crawfish.” We had seen a couple of loon families in the  previous days, so I thought the loon was delivering breakfast to someone. Once it had swum  away, my husband came down to the dock. He had been up at the house, watching from a  distance. “Wow,” he said, “that was so close.” We went on about our day—he went for a bike  ride, I went for a walk. 

We live on a peninsula with a shared driveway that winds around a cove. As I returned  from my walk, nearing the cove, I could hear voices coming from the water. I looked up to see a  man, a girl, and a dog in a canoe. They were fairly close to shore, moving slowly. I assumed they were following something, so I looked through the trees to see what it was—a loon. I  walked slowly to follow it, too. I heard the girl say, “It has something in it’s mouth.” I probably  startled them when I piped in from the woods, “I saw a loon earlier this morning that seemed to  have a fish in its mouth. But then I saw little legs, so I thought it was a crawfish.” The girl said,  “Yeah, that’s what this looks like.” How odd that the loon was still carrying the same thing—I  felt my stomach turn over. She said, “It can’t close its mouth.” Then I knew: This loon is going  to die. I couldn’t see clearly earlier that morning, with my hair in my face, but the loon had  something stuck in its mouth. How would I ever be able to help it? As soon as I tried to  approach it, it would dive. The loon swam through two stands of cattails, with the canoe trailing  slowly behind, and me following along the shore. Then I realized that it was moving to the most  shallow part of the cove, where the water is only a few feet deep—it wouldn’t be able to dive! I  immediately started talking to it: “Will you let me help you? Please let me help you!” I walked  around the cove and the loon was right where I thought it would be. As I moved toward the  water, I decided it was better to keep my shoes on—there’s no telling what might be on the  bottom. I took a couple of steps in and immediately sank up to my knees in muck. “There go  my shoes,” I thought. But I walked carefully and got back on more solid ground within a few  steps. Initially, the loon moved slowly away, but then it stopped about ten feet from me, and  gave me a sweet little “hoot” sound, that encouraged me. I was still talking to it, silently. I  walked right over to it and picked it up. I did not hesitate because I was concerned about giving it  time to be startled or flaps its wings. I wrapped my left arm around its lower body and my right  around the breast, just below the neck. It did not resist. 

I immediately saw a wad of water-logged sticks, fishing hook and line wrapped around  and around its lower jaw and the back of its head. I kissed it on the head and told it that we were  here to help. I looked up to see the canoe about eight feet away; they pulled up right next to me.  I asked if they had any scissors, thinking perhaps they had fishing equipment with them, but they  did not. I looked at the girl, who seemed to be about fourteen. I gestured toward the woods  behind me with my head and said, “That’s my house—the green one. Go into the back door on  the left, through the laundry room, and into the kitchen. Look for the coffee maker on the  counter. In the drawer underneath there is a pair of scissors. Go get them.” She looked at her  father, then back at me, a little uncertain. I repeated the precise instructions about where to find  the scissors. She jumped out of the canoe to retrieve them. After she left, the man said, “I’m  Paul, that’s my daughter, Katie.” “I’m Ronni.” That’s all that was said. We stood in silence,  watching the loon. I had never realized that the black feathers on its head are actually an  iridescent dark greeny-black. It looked up at me with one red eye. I kept telling it everything would be OK. I kissed it again. Then we heard Katie’s voice behind us: “Oh no,” she realized,  “I’m not supposed to be running with scissors!” We laughed. I reminded her to put her thumb  over the rounded point to protect herself. Katie waded back to us and took off her once beautiful  white sandals and dropped them into the canoe. I looked at my new friends and asked who  wanted to do the cutting and who wanted to hold its head. Katie had the scissors so she would  do the cutting. I asked Paul to hold the loon’s head still so that it wouldn’t move and get hurt.  He took off his shoes and got out of the canoe. He seemed wary as he reached for the loon—I  don’t blame him. The beak is long with a sharp point, but the loon did not resist. Katie began  cutting away the fishing line. We started at the neck, freeing its head, then worked at all the  pieces around the lower jaw. I examined it carefully. Miraculously, the line had not produced  any cuts in the loon’s flesh. When we were finished, I kissed the loon one more time and bent  down to release it. It swam slowly away from us. Within moments it put its face in the water to  look for fish. That was a hopeful sign. 

Katie handed me the scissors and started to apologize, saying, “I think I may have left  some muddy footprints on your floor.” I laughed, “I don’t care about that!” We kept thanking  each other—for the help, for being there, for sharing this amazing encounter with the loon. We  waved good-bye, and they turned to look for their canoe. It had drifted about 25 feet away by  this point. Their dog seemed to take this whole episode in stride—he never uttered a sound. As  they tried to make their way back to the canoe, they kept sinking in muck, so they finally decided  to swim for it. I walked out of the water and back to my house. 

A few hours later, I took a paddleboard and went to find the loon. It was in the cove, still  looking for fish. I couldn’t wait to tell my husband the story when he returned from his ride.  Then he wanted to see how the loon was doing, too. We went out several times that day. Each  time the loon was either resting near the shore or looking for fish. It was still there at nightfall,  and I thought it probably needed a good night’s sleep and would be gone in the morning. The  next day we went out to the cove and my husband said, “I hope we don’t see it.” “Me too.” But  it was still there. We went out several times to check on it, and the loon was either resting or fishing. I kept trying to reassure myself: “Who knows how long it had been like that? It may  have been more tired, hungry, and dehydrated than I originally thought, which means it would  need a longer period of time to recover.” Late that day it was very near the shore, up against a  fallen log, and I began to worry. My husband said, “I feel like we’re on a death watch.”  

I had the same thought, but I tried to console myself by saying that, even if the loon  passes, at least we had lessened its suffering in its last days. On the third day, I arose very early  and went right out on the paddleboard. I scoured the cove, but the loon was gone. I was elated!  I have thought about my friend every day since this encounter. Holding it made me feel like a  Goddess—like Mother Earth, Herself. I have repeatedly relived that feeling, and the joy I felt in  knowing that it trusted me. I am grateful that it allowed us to help it—and in so doing, gave me  one of the most magical experiences of my life.  

-Ronni Tichenor, Old Forge, NY

Photo by Richard Monroe (not the loon in the story)

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Guest Contributor

The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park.

Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at [email protected]


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18 Responses

  1. Smitty says:

    Wow. What a nice story. Thank you.

  2. Westernedge says:

    Such a moving story and so well written. Thank you for sharing it! And thanks for your courage to pick up the loon!

  3. Barbara Franklin says:

    Beautiful story! How brave you were! There is a program to try and educate fisherman to this problem. Clearly we must do more to protect these gems of the Adirondacks.

  4. Jim S. says:

    I felt like I was there with you! Thanks.

  5. Marcia says:

    I was at Great Camp Sagamore in August and hoped to see loons as our cottage was on water’s edge. No luck … TS Fred dumped rain on us for 40 hours. Perhaps that’s the reason. We will return to ADK in 2022. I once paddled between two families on Tupper Lake. It was an experience.
    Loved this story, Katie. TYVM.

  6. Maggie Jihan says:

    Beautiful, wonderful…. thanks for helping, and thanks for sharing the story.

  7. Mara Jayne Miller says:

    What a wonderful narration and what a magical encounter, Ronni Tichenor! so many thanks to the three of you for saving that loon’s life. On many of the Adirondack lakes — even Lake Placid, where I have lived for many years — they are coming nearer and nearer to shore, especially when incubating or nesting, and need to be out of the wind or overhead predators’ pathways. I am just towards the end of the most absorbing book, “Loon Lessons: Uncommon Encounters with the Great Northern Diver” by James D. Paruk, If you haven’t come across it yet, do get it. You will love it, I think. It can be had at the storefront little new museum of the Loon Conservation Project in Saranac Lake. Did you know that though a quarter of the size of the American Eagle, the Common Loon weighs the same, about 11 pounds? I didn’t know that, found it amazing. The loon’s skeleton is weightier than most birds, which is why he or she is such a great diver…their weight enables them to get to lake bottom very quickly…. read on and enjoy it. Thank you again for the great encounter tale. Mara Jayne Miller

  8. Thank you, Ronni, for sharing your wonderful experience of saving this unfortunate loon.

    I can provide additional follow-up on this poor bird. It was one that Gary Lee from the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation had tried to catch several times in the week before you came across it. However, unfortunately, it evaded his capture attempts each time. When you found the loon, it had been tangled for many days, and was showing signs of illness secondary to its fishing line entanglement, which is why you were able to approach it and finally free it from the line.

    Sadly, it was found dead on shore, and Gary collected it on August 9, 2020, to send to NYS DEC’s Wildlife Pathology Laboratory for necropsy. The necropsy report indicated it had a fish hook embedded in its esophagus, as well as the line you had removed from around its bill. It was emaciated, as it hadn’t eaten for several days, and was also suffering from mild aspergillosis, a fungal infection in its lungs, which was secondary to being stressed and not eating due to the fishing line entanglement.

    This bird is only one of many cases of fishing line entanglement that we at the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation respond to each year. Loons get tangled in fishing line when they catch a fish that still has line attached, or sometimes when they are accidentally hooked by an angler casting his or her line.

    Fortunately, we are able to save many of these loons. Depending on their injuries, we treat them with fluids and antibiotics prior to release. We also band these birds to enable us to followed up on them in subsequent years. Our monitoring shows that these rescued birds often survive to raise chicks (see http://www.adkloon.org/rescues and our blog, http://www.adkloon.org/adk-loon-blog to learn about some of our other rescues).

    However, many other loons die as a result of their injuries or due to lead poisoning from accidentally swallowing lead fishing tackle. Thus, we invite Adirondack anglers and others to participate in our Fishing Line Recycling and Lead-Tackle Buy-Back Programs (www.adkloon.org/fishing-line-recycling-program and http://www.adkloon.org/lead-tackle-buy-back-program) to help reduce these threats and better protect loons.

    Additionally, we are working to establish a loon rescue and rehabilitation center over the next couple of years – we will have more information on our website soon. If you are are interested in helping support this endeavor, please contact [email protected].

    With much thanks again to Ronni, Gary, and the many others who help us protect loons and other wildlife!

    • Thanks Nina, for the update and so sad about this loon’s ultimate fate. Wanted to clarify: Was the update you are giving from this August? You have 2020 and wanted to check whether or not that’s a typo.

      • The bird I am describing was found in August, 2020. We are pretty certain that Ronni is writing about the loon that was reported to us and we tried to catch several times in 2020, based on her description of where she found the loon.

        We have not heard about such a fishing line loon on Fourth Lake this August, but it is quite feasible there was another one.

  9. David Filion says:

    Love Loons, love their sounds, love the Adirondacks, love nature, I spend 8 weeks, in a cabin off grid each fall, in the Adirondacks, where I grew up. Loons winter here in Virginia Beach and are very shy!

  10. Marisa Muratori says:

    Thank you for this lovely story. I needed it today. And, bravo, by the way.

  11. Joel Rosenbaum says:

    Marvelous poignant story. Thanks Ronni Technor!
    Joel Rosenbaum

  12. Many years ago, one winter when I was in second or third grade, my older sisters brought home a pigeon that they had found on the way home from school. Our best guess was that it had been somehow frozen in ice (this was during winter in Chicago) and had a hole in it neck (which, as I recall, was about as large as an adult’s finger). When we tried feeding it, the food fell out of the hole so we knew that it was most likely starving. My sisters then started feeding it directly through the hole in its neck. The pigeon got stronger and the hole in its neck healed. We decided to release it and let it go. It flew away but shortly after it came back, much to our delight. Most amazing, however, was that the next spring it came back and landed on the roof of our garage, behind our back yard. The garage had a ridged roof and the pigeon (I forget the name we had given it) sat there for a second before it was joined by two baby chicks–it was bringing us its brood to show us that all was well and, I think, to thank us. Something I’ve never forgotten.

  13. Mara Jayne Miller says:

    Thank you, Dr. Schoch for that good follow-up. The end of the story is sometimes as important as the middle, and more hopeful parts. Please continue your good work on all aspects of loon conservation, from fishing lines to habitat destruction to more and better research.

  14. Ann Brewer says:

    I was worried for the Loon to the end. Not sure I would have had the guts to cut it free
    Bravo.

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