In the predawn hours of a night in mid July when you were probably sound asleep, two teams of wildlife biologists met at an undisclosed location along the New York-Massachusetts border to exchange a load of extremely precious cargo: six-week old loon chicks.
Just a few hours earlier, members of the New York crew had been poised in a small boat on a lake in the Adirondacks with a spotlight at the ready, broadcasting recordings of loon calls.
“The chicks think it’s another loon,” explained Lee Attix, Loon Conservation Specialist and Wildlife Research Biologist for the Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI). “Lots of times they will just swim right up to the boat.” That’s when the spotlight comes into play. Like deer in headlights, the chicks freeze, allowing the scientists to capture them swiftly and safely.
“It’s a pretty successful procedure,” said Attix, explaining, “We’ve been doing this for a long time.”
Nearly thirty years, in fact. Since 1989, BRI has captured, banded, and recaptured more than 5,000 common loons to track movement and health of individual birds, and has been a key partner for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife since 1993. “Our collaboration with BRI has resulted in a wealth of information on the status of loons and their importance to the northern forest,” said Drew Major, Environmental Contaminants Specialist at the Service’s New England Field Office.
But even for one of the leading authorities on loon conservation in the nation, the pre-dawn loon chick transfer represented uncharted waters.
More than tracking loons, the objective of the “Restore the Call” project led by BRI and funded by the Ricketts Conservation Foundation is to move them. Really, to move them back.
Led by Attix and his team with assistance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Ecological Services Program and the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game, the loon translocation effort evolved from a vision to restore loons to former breeding ranges in the Northeast.
“When we started looking for places where the birds have not been able to reestablish themselves, or are sputtering, Massachusetts really jumped out,” Attix said.
Take a look at a map of loon survey data collected in Massachusetts between 2010 and 2012 and the cluster of yellow dots around the center of the state will no doubt catch your eye. Those dots indicate locations of lakes with known loon breeding territories. Fifty years ago, there would have been nothing there. That’s because loons had been completely extirpated from Massachusetts by the beginning of the 20th century as a result of human activities, primarily hunting.
Then in 1975, a pair of breeding loons was discovered on the Quabbin Reservoir, and the subsequent comeback has been steady, encouraging, and unprecedented. According to BRI, Massachusetts is the only state where breeding loons were extirpated and have returned of their own volition to reestablish a sustainable population.
But the loon resurgence has also been limited, and that’s another reason why Massachusetts stood out to BRI. Look at that loon survey map again and you will see dozens of red dots scattered across the state from Cape Cod to the Berkshires. Those are lakes that have no known territorial pairs of loons, despite representing prime breeding habitat. Attix pointed out that 95 percent of the breeding pairs in Massachusetts are within a 30-mile radius of the site where the pioneering pair was found on the Quabbin 41 years ago.
It seems the new generations of Massachusetts loons are failing to launch.
“Our data show that loons typically don’t move more than 10 to 15 miles from their natal lakes, so if there isn’t good breeding habitat close by, it can take a really long time for them to spread out,” said Attix. “We are essentially trying to jumpstart that process and help them get back on their way.”
That brings us back to the pre-dawn exchange on the state border. After Attix and his team picked up the New York loon chicks, they brought them directly to a lake in southeastern Massachusetts with all the right characteristics for loons: relatively undeveloped, quiet, good natural nesting habitat, and chock full of fish.
And that’s when things get really complicated. It’s not enough to just plop the loon chicks down on a new lake and wish them well. The team must make sure the chicks survive and thrive by feeding and monitoring them until they are old enough to fend for themselves.
Easier said than done. Although scientists have pretty well mastered the process of catching loons, BRI’s staff veterinarian Michelle Kneeland said there have been very few cases where loons have successfully been kept in captivity for a long time.
“Loons are definitely more prone to stress than other animals, which adds yet another wrinkle of complexity to this project,” said Kneeland. “When we’re not trying to feed them, we’re trying to give them as much space as possible.”
That requires a fairly elaborate set up that looks decidedly out of place along a wooded lakeshore: A set of three rearing pens made from galvanized chain-link fence lined with fine white mesh to keep the chicks from getting snagged, then wrapped with dark material to create a visual barrier between the chicks and the lake. The team realized if the birds could see out, they would try to get out.
“And see those blinds with the PVC pipes and the red funnels?” said Attix, pointing to the stockade fencing separating the pens from the dock as he stood on the shore of the lake. “That’s what we use to feed them.”
Whoever is doing one of the four daily feedings will tiptoe out an aluminum dock leading to the pens, scoop up about 30 golden shiners from a crate floating in the water and slip them through the funnel into each pen, all the while keeping noise and movement to an absolute minimum. The goal is to make sure the loons aren’t too distressed to eat, but also to make sure they don’t start to associate people with food.
If it sounds like an ad hoc operation, that’s because it is. “Before a pilot study in Minnesota, nothing like this had ever been done,” said Kneeland. “Right from the get go, this project was something we were developing from scratch based on input from the best loon minds in the country contributing to figure out the best way to do things.”
So far, the Massachusetts loon translocation operation is off to a promising start. In the summer of 2015, the project’s first year, the crew successfully reared six loon chicks in the pens, and released one older chick directly onto the lake, between July and October. Most of the young loons remained on the lake foraging and feeding until December, when they migrated to offshore waters to overwinter.
BRI is repeating the translocation effort this year (2016), with the goal of translocating as many as ten chicks. With assistance from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and Maine Audubon, the state of Maine is now collaborating, as well, strengthening the project by offering a second geographic source population.
In the short term, the signs look good. But the team will have to be patient to know if the project has been an overall success. Very patient.
“Three years is the earliest when they would start coming back and looking for a territory, and at least five years before we would see any breeding attempts,” explained Attix.
Over the course of the three-year rearing project, Attix said the goal is to rear 25 to 30 chicks at the lake’s rearing facility. In addition to the rearing lake, the complex of lakes in the local area is estimated to be large enough to accommodate as many as 12 to 15 territorial pairs.
“After that, we just wait to see if they come back,” he said.
Attix and Kneeland are hopeful that they will. But even if they don’t, and the project doesn’t end up expanding the boundaries for loons in Massachusetts, it will have already expanded the boundaries for loon conservation.
“Just establishing these methods, and showing that translocation could be a viable option to get loons to occur in former breeding territory is huge,” said Kneeland. “Beyond that, this has potential to apply to other situations where there might be a need to increase a local population in response to a particular threat.”
Which is exactly why FWS got involved. “We were specifically interested in this project because we needed to know if this could be a viable restoration tool in an event that local loon populations are affected by an oil spill,” explained Major.
Translocation could also be a response to broader threats, like the increasing risk of drought from climate change. Loons nest very close to edge of water and as such are vulnerable to water level fluctuation. “It’s a big reason we lose nests,” Attix said, explaining that although loons are powerful swimmers, their legs are set so far back on their bodies that they can’t walk on land.
“Once they are out of the water, they have to drag themselves,” he said. “So if you drop a lake a foot, birds might not be able to get back to the nest.”
And if you drop a lot of lakes a foot, the numbers of lost nests start to add up to (or subtract) a lot of loons.
In a time of increasing uncertainty and accelerated change, unconventional conservation approaches represent a bridge to the future for species like loons that will otherwise be left high and dry. As Kneeland reasoned, “The more tools we have in our tool bag to apply to encourage loons to repopulate, the better.”