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Adirondack Loons
Saturday Night, July 21st, 2007
Common Loon & chick by Nina SchochCommon Loon in Algonquin Park, Ontario
Left, Common Loon & Chick by Nina Schoch, & right, Common Loon at Dawn in Algonquin Park, by Steve Hall

Loons

While nothing represents the lure of the Adirondack wilderness as dramatically as the haunting call of the Common Loon, there's absolutely nothing common about the Common Loon.  They are very large water birds (5-10 lbs.!), but not water fowl. Whereas loons have solid, heavy bones to aid in deep diving,  other birds have hollow bones to contribute the lightness which enables flying and quick takeoffs. And yet, while loons require what looks like a running start across a a quarter of a mile of open water to become airborne, once aloft they can fly up to 80 mph! Powerful swimmers, with red-pigmented eyes designed for clearer vision underwater, loons are as incredibly exotic, beautiful and graceful in the water, as they are comically awkward on land, flopping about so helplessly, that walking on land is difficult and takeoff impossible. In still another blow to intelligent design (unless "wild beauty" is its object), loons sometimes appear to have been assembled from spare parts. The five species of loon, all of which are found only in the Northern hemisphere, represent almost an island in evolution, for when you look around for another family of related species, the closest you get are penguins, albatrosses and shearwaters.  Yes, loons are not only a highly specialized, 50 million year-old family of birds, they are uniquely different.

Click on Photos to Enlarge
The 1st boat arrives at the dock1st boat
Adirondack Loon Conservation Program

Dr. Nina Schoch is the Program Coordinator for the BioDiversity Research Institute's Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation, an organization "dedicated to improving the overall health of the environment, particularly the protection of air and water quality, through collaborative research and education efforts focusing on the natural history of the Common Loon (Gavia immer) and conservation issues affecting loon populations and their aquatic habitats."  In short, despite the protestations of real effort by our special interest-beholden leaders, the health and well-being of loons are a good indication of how well we are truly protecting the environment in general, and the Adirondack wilderness in particular.  Pollutants such as mercury and its more toxic form, methylmercury, are products from midwest power plants and trash burning, delivered to the Adirondacks and northern New England by the prevailing winds in the form of acid rain and snow. In a scary process, ominously dubbed "biomagnification" , loons, being at the top on their food chain, and feeding exclusively on similarly afflicted fish and other aquatic animals, suffer highly elevated levels of these toxins, negatively impacting birth and mortality rates.
2nd boat arrivesJonathan Brown of NCPR interviews Nina as she works
Recreational Trade Offs

Recreational activities also affect loon survival. For example, Nina and the ACLP, educate users of motorized watercraft, about the vulnerability of loon families to propellar-inflicted injuries and collisions with watercraft. Fisherman can help out, by using non-lead sinkers, which the loons tend to find and swallow, perhaps, ironically enough, to aid in digestion by grinding food matter in the gizzard. Overdevelopment of waterfront properties deprives loons of suitable habitat in which to raise their broods, and in this regard, Nina's work complements work by organizations like the Nature Conservancy, which purchase large tracts of wilderness, to protect them from development, and enable the "forever wild" aspect of the Adirondacks we all love.
Nina draws blood from the maleZen & the art of Loon Cradling

Why We Were There

Well, there is this little Thai restaurant... Seriously, Nina and the ACLP, work with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, to track loons, identify them through banding, and measure short and long term levels of mercury through blood and feather samples respectively.  Enter Barb Bave and her family, who have a cabin on secluded Garnet Lake in Warren County in the southeast Adirondacks. Barb is an intrepet "46er", one of those individuals who have hiked up all of the 46 Adirondacks High Peaks over 4,000 feet. Not content with accomplishing this during periods of temperate weather, Barb and her twin sister repeated the feat in Winter weather conditions, making them stellar members of a small, elite club, and possible candidates for intensive therapy. See the Carol White book, "Women with Altitude". Anyway, The ACLP assigns members to lakes for purposes of building a loon census. Wendy, always casting around for another cause, and more critters to mother, had just become involved in this project, and promised to buy me breakfast, if I kayaked with her around "Round Lake", in Lake Placid that very morning, looking for evidence of loons in a stunning mountain setting. We didn't find any loons, but we were reminded once again, why we love living in the Adirondacks. Nina invited Wendy to the Garnet Lake event, because of her involvement with the ACLP.

Nina works  Nina works on the male
In the Wee Hours at Garnet Lake

Loons were known to have been nesting for years on Garnet Lake. The Baves kept track of their comings and goings with a spotter scope from the deck of their cabin, and constructed secure nesting platforms for their use. As described by Barb, one of these seemed so lavish and lovingly constructed, we dubbed it the "Taj MaLoon". On Saturday night, the Baves provided their dock, and Nina and her group arrived with two flat-bottomed boats with small motors, to use in locating and netting the resident loons and their two chicks. This activity is performed in the dark, as the loons are easier to catch when they can't see their pursuers, being distracted by the searchlights used by the boat crews. Wendy mentioned that locating the loons is no mean feat, as loons are "precocial" birds. When I asked her how being good at spelling bees made them elusive, she explained that loons leave their nest with their chicks, right after the chicks are hatched, and I remembered that mergansers, which roost in tree cavities, display the same behaviour. The loons can therefore be anywhere on the lake, as long as their aquatic food is plentiful, and disturbances are at a minimum.
Nina works on the maleLoon Chick 1 waits

The Process

After the loons are netted, the adults are calmed by having towels wrapped around their heads to serve as blinders, and the birds are firmly cradled in the arms of their captors, who persevered like Zen Masters, through the many hours required for this task. It turned out that one of the adults had been banded in the past, and the hoots he traded with his mate, seemed to indicate they knew they were not in any danger. The chicks seemed positively trusting. Nina and her team drew blood, took a feather sample, and performed various growth calculations with calipers. We never did get the names of all the volunteers and DEC personnel involved in this project, many of whom appear in these photographs, but we were impressed with their dedication and determination to see the task through no matter how long it took. We ended up having to leave while they were working on the male, as it was already 12:30 AM, we were an hour and a half from home, and Wendy had volunteered to help out at Ironman at 8:00 AM. For more information on the ACLP, its mission, and what we can all do to help, click on the link below. Steve Hall

Loon Chick 1Loon Chick 2
Rewilding the Adirondacjs

Adirondack Center For Loon Conservation


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Steve & Wendy Hall
PO Box 555, 977 Springfield Road, Wilmington, NY 12997
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