Loons are migrating back to Vermont lakes and ponds after wintering off the coast
As warm weather has returned to Vermont, so have nesting loons.
Known for their red eyes and haunting calls, the birds were a rare sight in Vermont several decades ago — but they’ve rebounded. They were removed from the state’s endangered species list in 2005, and last summer had a record number of active nests.
Loons are now reestablishing homes on Vermont lakes and ponds, which means wildlife biologists are busy.
There are still a myriad of threats facing loons, including climate change, lead fishing gear, and a new strain of avian flu.
To discuss the outlook for loons and the efforts to help them thrive around New England, VPR's Grace Benninghoff caught up with wildlife biologist Eric Hanson, who's with the Vermont Loon Conservation Project and the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Grace Benninghoff: Let's start by talking a bit about loons generally. There are lakes all over the country called Loon Lake; there are breweries named after this bird. Actually, my dad is a really big fan of loons. He always points out their call in the summer when they're out and about. How have these birds done such a good job of capturing people's attention?
Eric Hanson: I really think it's because they allow us to be part of their daily lives without being hidden in the marsh, back in the woods. I mean, they are out there, right? Where we have our camps and cabins, where we picnic, where we boat. And they also have that amazing call that I think just captures the imagination. It's not just a squawk. It's a beautiful melody that turns into what summer is for a lot of people.
What are biologists like yourself currently up to now that loons are back for spring?
One of the biggest issues that faced loons 20, 30, 40 years ago was nesting habitat, and making sure that they had a place to have a safe nest from flooding, from disturbance and people on shorelines.
One of our mitigation strategies is using nesting rafts. And so that's what we've been busy doing the last few weeks, fixing those up. It's sort of a housekeeping-type job. We add vegetation, grasses and mud and everything that they would build a natural nest with. So that's one of the things we're working on right now, is getting those all out as the pairs are courting each other, they're defending from other loons and starting to climb on those rafts to build nests.
I know more loons laid eggs last summer than ever before in Vermont. Can you tell me a little bit more about how they've recovered in recent years?
I think a lot of it was just protecting those nest sites and giving them a chance to get through their 28 days of incubation without being disturbed, or in the case of reservoirs without being flooded. So most of the hydroelectric companies that have dams work with us closely. We let them know when loons are nesting; we let them know when they're done so they can help control water levels. And if they can't control water levels, we use those rafts.
Then we work closely with shoreline owners. Whenever we get a loon nesting on private land nearby, and there's camps nearby, we'll contact those folks. And we can figure out strategies to allow us to live with loons are the loons to live with us. And that has just been hugely successful.
Another big part of it is just volunteers. I have over 350 volunteers statewide. Some just helping with a one-day count, but others helping every week. They're checking on their pairs, they're talking with their neighbors — those volunteers have become our educators. And I think Vermont, as a whole, is one of the most loon-aware places in the country, for people who know how to help them out. And I think that has just paid off in spades.
The other part is we passed legislation in 2007 to ban the sale of half-ounce or less lead sinkers. And that definitely helped. We saw a good 50% reduction comparing the 13 years prior and the 13 years since. However, we have seen a little uptick recently in lead mortalities.
Just to be clear, you're talking about fishing gear, right?
Yes, fishing gear with lead sinkers. And they ingest a single lead sinker, and that's the end of that loon. So we're just going to be implementing a new program over the next year and a half, to try to get a little more lead out of people's tackle boxes, and use the alternatives that are out there.
What are the biggest threats facing loons moving forward? And how worried are you and other biologists about this new strain of avian flu that was recently found in Vermont?
The avian flu tends to come around every decade or so. And sometimes that will spread into other species, sometimes not. So just kind of depends. We've seen that in eagles in Vermont already. So it may be that loons are not susceptible to it. But every dead loon we're going to get this summer we will be testing for avian flu, just to be sure.
Some of the other bigger issues that are facing loons are malaria. We've had several cases now of malaria actually killing loons in New England over the last decade. We've always thought of that as a very southern disease, And we're finding that loons are picking it up here.
Another new — well, I won't say it's a new disease, but it's becoming more common — is a respiratory fungal disease called aspergillosis. It's often black mold in people, but loons often are carrying it or at least exposed to it. We used to only see it on the oceans. But we're now seeing it more in the summertime. We've seen a lot more cases over the last decade or so. We're really running to collect all those dead, or dying birds or ailing birds, to be able to test and see what's going on. Because we can learn so much from that. There's a chance that it could be an issue with warmer waters, and climate change. More algae. Harder to find good food. Food changes in the food web. Those are all stressors.
That was actually my next question. Can you share a few key takeaways on how our changing climate might impact loons in Vermont in the future?
In the big picture, there's some forecasts that say Vermont could be like North Carolina in 50 to 100 years, and there are no loons in North Carolina. Why are there new loons in North Carolina? Part of that may be this is metabolism and the heat stress. Eggs need a certain temperature to develop. And if it gets too warm, to cold, those those eggs won't develop correctly and will die. So that's one possibility.
Another is adults overheating. Another big one would be rain events or lack of rain. Both of those are really key for successful nesting. We had a record a few years ago, when we had a bunch of those rain events where we lost almost 15 nests to flooding.
And the last part is just changes in the lake food webs — between algal blooms, between parasites and diseases with those somehow making the loons more susceptible. All those things could play a factor in the future.
So we're ending on a little bit of a bleak note here. But growing up I remember seeing loons all over the Adirondacks. And it's nice to hear they're doing well — at least for now.
I mean, despite the doom and gloom of some of these things we're talking about, overall the loons are doing amazingly well. We just have a few of these things to watch. We can kind of view loons as that canary out there in the coal mine, of how are we doing? How are our lakes doing? And maybe that can translate into how we need to take some actions around our lakes, or with pollution issues, septic systems and development. Those are all ways that loons can be used to get people excited about making some positive changes.