Call of the Loon

CANADA LAKE – On Saturday morning, hundreds of volunteers will take part in an effort to gather information about one of the Adirondacks’ biggest and best-known birds – the common loon.

“They are such a beloved and iconic species,” said Leslie Karasin of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Adirondack program, based in Saranac Lake, which is coordinating the 13th annual Adirondack Loon Census. On lakes and ponds throughout the region, volunteers will go to assigned locations from 8 to 9 a.m. Saturday and report on the number of adult and immature loons and loon chicks that they observe.

Similar loon counts will be done simultaneously in other parts of the Northeast, and the data will be analyzed to look for trends in the overall regional population.

“Historically, there have been threats to loons,” Karasin said. These have included DDT, acid rain, lead poisoning and entanglement from fishing tackle, degradation of their shoreline habitats and disturbances caused by humans and their boats.

“Because they are at the top of the aquatic food chain, Loons are a good indicator of the health of the aquatic food chain as a whole,” Karasin explained.

The presence of toxic mercury in the food chain is a major environmental concern in Adirondack lakes, which continue to suffer the effects of acid rain caused by industrial pollution.

Nina Schoch, a wildlife veterinarian with the Biodiversity Research Institute’s Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation in Ray Brook, is one of the founders of the loon census program and continues to do research on mercury poisoning in wildlife.

“Mercury is a neurotoxin, so it affects the nervous system,” Schoch said. “In the Adirondacks, what we see is subtle behavioral changes in the birds because of high mercury levels. The adults don’t care for the chicks as well, and the chicks with high mercury levels don’t ride on the adults’ backs – they don’t have the energy, so they are at greater risk of predation.”

More than 20 years after changes to the federal Clean Air Act and other legislation aimed at reducing acid rain, some lakes in the region remain unable to support fish. But many others have bounced back, including several lakes in Fulton County.

And, as the fish have flourished, birds that depend on them as a food source have returned, including loons.

“They’re a beautiful bird. I’m fascinated by them,” said Janet Petrie Davis, a Vermont resident who spends summers on Dolgeville Point at Canada Lake and coordinates the loon census for that lake and several connected lakes.

“I’ve been coming to this lake since I was a baby, and when I was a kid, we had no loons and no mergansers,” Davis said. (Mergansers are large ducks that, unlike mallards and American black ducks, rely on fish as a food source.)

In recent years, Davis said, the loons have been nesting on the shores of Canada Lake because its waters are so clean and full of fish.

Davis said this year’s loon population on Canada Lake seems to comprise three single loons, along with a mated pair of adults who have two chicks. High water due to this season’s heavy rainfall washed out the pair’s nest, she said, but the chicks have been seen in a new nest at another place on the lake.

The chicks usually learn to fly by early August, she said, so they are strong enough to fly to the Carolina coast by early fall.

She said one year, a loon was seen at Canada Lake as late as November – perhaps too late in the season to successfully migrate.

“We’re not sure if that one made it,” Davis said.

Davis said the loons on Canada Lake have become less wary of people, but boaters should be careful not to approach the birds too closely, especially when they are caring for their young.

“People need to be respectful when they see them,” she advised.

Even when they are out of sight, loons make their presence known with their voices. The birds’ wailing “night choruses” are a familiar sound to those who live here. To new visitors to the Adirondacks, the call of the loon can be haunting, even startling.

“You hear that sound, and people want to know – what was that?” said Kathy Henry, who has coordinated the loon survey every year since 2004 on Peck’s Lake, where she lives year-round.

“I get neighbors to help do the survey, so we try to cover the whole lake,” Henry said. She has more than 20 volunteers lined up to help this Saturday, and they will use kayaks, pontoon boats and other craft.

She said the number of loons counted each year on Peck’s Lake has varied from a high of 11 adult birds to a low of five.

“I saw my first loons of 2013 in our bay on April 20,” Henry told The Leader-Herald this week. “The ice was still on the main body of the lake, but our bay was mostly open. I watched one loon dive under water and break through the thin ice. Fascinating!”

Henry said Peck’s Lake has rules prohibiting personal watercraft and motorboats with engines in excess of 40 horsepower, so the lake might be more attractive to loons than some of the other lakes in Fulton County.

But boats aren’t the only threat to wildlife on the lake. Henry said in 2011, an immature loon was found dead; its bill, wing and leg were wrapped in clear fishing line – a sight she described as heartbreaking.

BRI’s Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation is asking fish-and-game clubs and lake associations around the region to help take part in a new fishing-line recycling program.

The center is seeking funding to provide containers where people can drop off old, broken and washed-up fishing line, so it can be collected and recycled.

“I’m hoping that will decrease the incidence of wildlife caught in fishing lines,” said Schoch, who said loons tend to get entangled when they catch fish that have been hooked but got away and are trailing broken line. “I think we see it more often in loons than any other species.”

For more information about BRI’s Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation, see Features Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached by email at [email protected]

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