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Ten loons were trapped on a frozen lake. Biologists planned a rescue mission

Nine birds swimming on an opening in the ice. One flaps its wings in the water.
Robert Kozlow
/
Loon Preservation Committee
Because of their anatomy — they're powerful divers with solid bones — loons can’t take off unless they have a long enough runway of open water. That means they can't fly if they're surrounded by enough ice.

The ice on New Hampshire’s biggest lake didn’t come in until mid January this year. When Lake Winnipesaukee did freeze, it happened almost at once. Six inches of black ice set in overnight.

That’s when Evan Perkins, of Barnet, went out for a long skate with friends. In the middle of the lake, about a mile from shore, something on the surface of the ice caught his eye.

“I skated that way,” he said. “And we came across a large open hole with 10 loons swimming around in it.”

Perkins had seen loons like this before — they’re heavy birds with red eyes and long, dark bodies, known for their eerie calls. He knew they weren’t supposed to be there. They were stuck.

“We made sure to log the coordinates to give to somebody,” Perkins said. “We didn’t stick around there very long, just because they were obviously panicking.”

Those coordinates eventually reached John Cooley, a biologist with the nonprofit Loon Preservation Committee based in New Hampshire.

"It seemed like we were giving them the best chance for a good recovery the sooner we could get them."
John Cooley, Loon Preservation Committee

“Within a moment of talking to the ice skater, I knew exactly what the story was,” Cooley said. “Immediately, we kind of swung into high gear.”

The next morning, after a snowstorm, he skied across the lake to check on the loons.

“They were just hanging out there, and not getting much to eat,” he said.

“It's over one of the deepest parts of the lake, so there are fish there. But it was just hard to imagine that they were doing well. It seemed like we were giving them the best chance for a good recovery the sooner we could get them.”

But the hole in the ice was too big to attempt a rescue. So he visited the loons every day.

Ten birds swimming in an open patch of water on a frozen lake. Mountains and coniferous trees in the background.
Harry Vogel
/
Loon Preservation Committee
Biologists couldn't attempt a rescue mission immediately, because the hole in the ice was too big. They need a small opening for their own safety and to have a better chance of catching the diving birds.

People like Cooley care so much about these birds because there were hardly any left just a few decades ago. Only a few dozen resided on lakes across Vermont and New Hampshire.

In recent years, populations have rebounded. But loons aren't supposed to be here this time of year. Every fall, they head to the ocean to overwinter.

Sometimes though, a loon will linger into the colder months. That’s when they can get into trouble. Because of their anatomy — they’re powerful divers with solid bones — they can’t take off flying whenever they want.

“They have to work really hard to take flight, and usually that involves running across the surface of the water while flapping their wings the whole time,” said Caroline Hughes, another biologist with the Loon Preservation Committee.

“So when the ice comes in and they don’t have a long enough runway, they can’t take off.”

“We sort of expect that we would start to see cases of loons getting stuck in this way more frequently as the climate warms.”
John Cooley, Loon Preservation Committee

There’s an even bigger issue for the birds this late in the season. Every year, loons lose and regrow all the feathers they need to fly. It’s called molting, and it takes about a month. Usually, this happens when they’re out on the ocean, where they don’t need to go anywhere. But if they’re still on a lake that’s frozen over, they’re trapped.

“They're designed to swim, so they can't walk well,” Hughes said. “If any sort of predator — an eagle or whatever else — comes after them when they're up on the ice, they can't get away from it and they're goners.”

Loons get stuck on lakes in New Hampshire and Vermont nearly every year. But not usually as adults in such big groups so late in the season.

Cooley has a theory about what might be going on here.

“We know that the long-term trend in ice cover on lakes in the Northeast is towards a shorter ice season," he said. “We sort of expect that we would start to see cases of loons getting stuck in this way more frequently as the climate warms.”

Scientists project climate change will also make much of the region uninhabitable for the species in coming decades. That’s as spring heat waves harm chicks and the water quality of northern lakes changes, according to Vermont’s Climate Assessment and modeling by the National Audubon Society.

Three people stand on a frozen lake over an with a net over open water, trying to catch a bird.
Robert Kozlow
/
Loon Preservation Committee
It took several hours of experimenting before biologists were able to haul each loon out of the water and extract them from the net.

Despite these existential threats, Cooley believes trying to save 10 loons from freezing to death, or being picked off by an eagle, is worth it.

Loons typically have one or two chicks a year. And not until they’re a few years old. But the birds are live for a long time — some are in their 30s.

“Each individual adult loon that we can rescue or save, it's going to have a long-term benefit to the population,” Cooley said.

That's been the case in Vermont.

“We’ve rescued enough loons that it has really made a difference in at least sustaining population levels,” said Eric Hanson, a loon biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, a wildlife conservation and research nonprofit.

“Up to half to 1% a year, contributing to population growth that we've seen, by saving three or four loons a year — maybe one of those would be [caught in] ice.”

That’s why Cooley was so determined to help the birds on Lake Winnipesauke.

Finally, six days after the skaters first spotted the birds, Cooley, Hughes and more than a dozen others headed out with a big long net to try to catch the loons.

They couldn’t get a hold of any birds though. The hole was still too big. The next day, after nighttime lows dipped below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, they tried again.

Three people kneel on a frozen lake, tending to a loon. On the ground is a net and a black plastic bin.
Harry Vogel
/
Loon Preservation Committee
The loons stayed overnight at a wildlife rehab center in Henniker, New Hampshire. There, they ate around 30 pounds of fish before they were released.

“The ice had come in so that the loons were trapped in this tiny, little 10-foot hole,” Cooley said. “They were just all cozied up like that.”

This time, they were able to scoop up the birds, one by one, over the course of several hours.

“We came up with a pretty good routine,” Cooley said.

They put each loon in a plastic bin and dragged them back to shore on sleds. Then, the loons headed to an emergency vet in Concord, where they were blood tested and X-rayed. They stayed at a wildlife rehab center, eating 30 pounds of fish as they recovered.

When they were deemed healthy enough, the birds took a bus to the ocean. They went off into the salt water, where they can regrow feathers and swim anywhere they’d like.

“They're exactly where they should be right now,” Hughes said.

Loon-release-New-Hampshire-coast-Harry-Vogel-20220124
Harry Vogel
/
Loon Preservation Committee
Loons from this region overwinter on the New England coastline, where they can regrow their feathers and swim anywhere they’d like.

Thank you to Jay Mager, John Rockwood, and the Loon Preservation Committee for sharing sounds of loon calls and takeoff.

Lexi Krupp is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Lexi Krupp:

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