Thursday, March 10, 2022

Five Loons Rescued on Lake Champlain

By Eric Teed

Our crew has a lunch policy. “Not a rule mind you, just a policy” put forward years ago by John Rosenthal. Lunch may not be taken before noon, seating should be comfortable, in the sun, and out of the wind. Given we had been skating for hours on incredible black ice, we were euphoric and ravenous. The speck of dirt called Diamond Island in Lake Champlain’s Narrows would have to do. Then, I saw the loons. I almost missed lunch, and the next day would be one I will always remember.

Nordic ice skating at its extreme takes well-equipped skaters on tours for many miles on variable and dangerous ice. Devotees of this sport learn to read and test ice; they wear dry suits and life jackets and carry safety equipment. On March 6th, Kevin Boyle, Dan Spada, John Rosenthal, and myself were on a more than 20-mile skate on Lake Champlain and came upon a small hole in the ice with five loons in it. Common loons migrate from their breeding grounds to open water for the winter. Ideally these birds go to the ocean, but sometimes they stop at Lake Champlain. In a mild winter the lake can be a good place for them. But in a year like this when most of the water freezes, it can be a loon’s demise.

In winter, loons molt their flight feathers and cannot fly for more than a month. If the ice freezes suddenly, they can be trapped. They will swim in circles to keep an area open, but if it is cold, the ice slowly closes in on them. Once trapped, they become easy prey for bald eagles and peregrine falcons. More loons are being trapped in ice more frequently and this is related to climate change. They should be triggered to migrate by encroaching ice on their breeding lakes in December, but now might wait until January or February. Instead of migrating to the ocean they can end up only getting to lakes like Champlain. Knowing this, I called Dr. Nina Schoch of the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation from the ice.

She answered on the second ring. “I’m on Champlain.”

Schoch, “How many loons do you have?”

Dr. Schoch immediately knew why I was calling and was direct and to the point.

Volunteer Kevin Boyle and Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation Wildlife Technician Cody Sears untangle the first of five loons rescued on Sunday. Photo by Eric Teed.

A barrage of emails and phone calls followed, and a rescue plan was launched. These beautiful birds with their wailing call which is the sound of wilderness and suspense are listed in New York as a species of special concern and are protected by the Migratory Bird Act. Loons face many threats, including climate change, fishing line entanglement, lead poisoning and human disturbance. Cody Sears, the center’s Wildlife Technician, led the rescue. Boyle and I were assigned to ice safety. Loon naturalist Ellie George handled checking the birds’ health once they were captured for transport to safer waters. Susan Harry and Jackie Miller, also with the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation, rounded out our skeleton team.

First thing Sunday morning we were at the mouth of Otter Creek on Fort Cassin Point, Vermont. In the distance through a spotting scope, I was able to see 12 bald eagles circling the hole and was disappointed to see only two loons. Maybe three were already gone. Boyle and I skated out the two miles for a closer look. The eagles dispersed and all five loons were still there. Three had been diving to avoid being eaten by eagles.

We dragged a canoe across the ice, filled with nets and containers for the birds. On approach from a threat, loons will dive and resurface only for an instant to take a breath. We draped a gill net over part of the hole. One by one, each bird surfaced to become entangled. We quickly brought them out onto the ice, untangled and placed the loons in plastic bins. We got all five in short order. Back on shore the loons were carefully inspected for any wounds or other injuries. All the birds were okay. One of the birds had been banded. It turns out that bird was twice lucky. It was rescued and banded by the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation on Lake George last winter.

Thanks to Rosenthal we knew that open water and safety for the loons was just 12 miles north of the rescue site at the Charlotte Town Beach. Shortly, we were back on the ice, sliding the canoe with the boxes and their cargo of five loons across old ice on the inner bay to the edge and open water.

Wildlife Technician Cody Sears, Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation Director of Philanthropy Susan Harry, and volunteer Kevin Boyle pull and push a canoe with rescued loons in bins off the ice, near Diamond Island. Photo by Eric Teed.

There the loons were released one at a time. Within moments, the loons found each other again. We could see them swimming together in the distance with another chance to make it through the winter.

After our feverish work to get the loons released quickly and safely, it was Boyle who summed up our feeling best, “I don’t often get a chance to change the world.”

“These birds are some of the many iced-in loons that we have rescued over the last few years,” explained Dr. Schoch. “Loon organizations throughout the Northeast have seen an increasing trend in iced-in loons in recent years, and we are now establishing trained rescue teams to respond. This winter alone in the Adirondacks, we have saved 9 common loons from almost certain death, and more than a dozen have been saved in Maine and New Hampshire.”

Wildlife Technician Cody Sears and Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation Director of Philanthropy Susan Harry watch as one of five rescued loons swim away from Charlotte Town Beach. Photo by Eric Teed.

To learn more about loon research and conservation efforts in the Northeast, visit Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation (NY), www.adkloon.org, Biodiversity Research Institute (ME),
 www.briwildlife.org, the Loon Preservation Committee (NH), www.loon.org, and the Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VT) www.vtecostudies.org.

Photo at top: Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation Wildlife Technician Cody Sears and staff member Jackie Miller preparing to release one of five rescued loons to open water at the edge of the ice at Charlotte Town Beach. Photo by Eric Teed.

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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 editor@adirondackalmanack.com




17 Responses

  1. Suzanne Carrillo says:

    🥰 Nina and Dan! I’m honored to know you both! The 5 loons were lucky to have Dan on the ice that day! Thanks Nina for always being available for the health and safety of our loons. Next time those 5 need to come down to the Chesapeake Bay! ❤️!

  2. Gene Porter says:

    This is a terrific and inspiring story.
    Gene Porter

  3. Alan Fisher says:

    I find these birds fascinating. I remember the first time seeing one on our family pond. In more recent years my wife and I observed one as it fished submarine style at the southern end of Seneca Lake at Watkins Glenn. Observing from the dock, the water was clear and the Loon moved so quickly it was hard to keep it in sight.

  4. Bill Ott says:

    I love loons. I surveyed loons in the early 80’s for the DEC. I just wish the word “lunatic” would go away.

  5. Tim says:

    I can’t help wondering about the poor, hungry eagles. Is one species “better” than another? Great story, nonetheless.

    • Boreas says:

      Tim,

      I see your point. 40 years ago this would have been a good point regarding Eagles. Today, not so much. Indeed, they are scavengers as well as predators – as are other birds and mammals that can navigate ice OK. But from what I understand, at least in this area, Loons are currently more at risk than Eagles because of a multitude of human-created threats. Eagles have a wide breeding range that makes them less vulnerable to certain threats. Also, Loons as a species are not as adaptable as Eagles.

      But if an escaped chicken was out there running around, someone would want to save it. That is compassion. If/how compassion fits into Nature is another matter that can be discussed forever.

  6. An inspiring story. Thanks for writing it Eric and thanks to all involved in changing the world, one loon at a time. Anyone reading this story should consider making a donation to the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation. They do critical work to safeguard the future of Adirondack loons.

  7. Linda says:

    No one can thank you all enough for your efforts..

  8. Mike says:

    I have seen loons like this ice fishing and a couple hours later they are on their way just fine if you leave them alone. Trapping with gill nets is dangerous and could kill the loons. It causes totally unnecessary stress to the birds. These types of so called rescues should be illegal.

    • Smitty says:

      Not understanding how loons trapped in the ice would be able to escape. Kudos to the Loon Conservation Society. They do good work, including a recent rescue on Star Lake.

      • Mike says:

        They can move or swim just fine to another location. If people are concerned, they should contact the DEC. With avian flu currently becoming a serious problem and being carried by waterfowl, The Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation needs to stop handling these birds and leave it to the state. Also chasing or harassing bald eagles is a federal offense and those involved should face charges.

        • Boreas says:

          If they can fly or swim, they obviously will and aren’t likely to be easily trapped by humans. If they are encircled by ice and do not have enough of a “water runway” to take off, they either wait or possibly starve depending on what food is below them. Being trapped, they are prone to avian predation, and that situation that also causes stress – depending on who is dive-bombing them. If the temps are falling and they can’t take off, their chances of survival go down.

          What makes you feel DEC would be any better at capturing/releasing loons? The ACLC doesn’t operate in secret. If DEC has serious issues with the handling of these birds, I believe they would either work alongside the ACLC or shut them down. Personally, I doubt the DEC would be any better, and likely worse. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they used the ACLC for their expertise and quick response times.

  9. Suzanne says:

    Agree with you Boreas. In this case there was not enough runway for the big birds/loons to gain momentum and take off. They were trapped in the ice and would surely perish if The Adirondacks center for loon conservation and skaters did not rescue. The ACLC is very well respected by experts in the field, around the country. We are fortunate to have them here in our backyard and protecting the loons. They communicate and work closely with DEC, and work to create awareness, education as well as helping to maintain the loon population that we all enjoy. Thank you to those that rescued the 5 loons! ❤️

  10. S. J. Newell says:

    Thanks for this great, heartwarming winter story! I have a lifelong relationship with the Adks and my love of loons is integrated in that. Stories of loon rescues where dedicated individuals put their own lives at risk in challenging conditions are needed reminders of the good in this world.

  11. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Boreas says: “What makes you feel DEC would be any better at capturing/releasing loons?”

    Recall some few years ago a DEC officer shot a dart into a black bear up in a tree in a residential neighborhood somewhere downstate, Schenectady maybe it was. People see a black bear and they freak out because usually black bears aren’t in residential neighborhoods. People freak out when they see a deer. These responses are tied to ‘nature deficit disorder.’ Their (the wild animals) environment is changing so their habits change, thus the bear in a residential neighborhood. The idea of the dart was to sedate the feller so as to capture and re-release it. After the dart went into the bear it immediately became sedated and fell from the tree and died. Good job DEC! You’d think they would have been prepared for such and were ready below with a life net. I’m with you Boreas!
    Very nice story above! It’s always good to be reminded that there are people with hearts. Than\k you very much!

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