Where the Loon Calls

After decades in free fall, how Maine’s loon population took off.

loon on a Maine lake
By Virginia M. Wright
Photographed by Paul Tessier

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Down East.

Just after sundown on a warm evening in mid-July, a small convoy of cars slides away from the stream of traffic on Route 302 in Windham and threads through a quiet residential neighborhood to the western shore of Little Sebago Lake. The dirt road is damp from the day’s hard rain, and even though the sky is clearing, the yards and porches of the lakeside camps are deserted. The boat launch is likewise empty when we ­pull into the parking area. There are five of us, and we’ve come here to capture loons.

loon on a Maine lake
If you’ve ever been on a lake in Maine, you know loons can be elusive.

Rest assured, we’re not looking for cruel entertainment. We’ve even alerted the local police and marine warden, lest a lake resident complain about a boatful of people harassing loons in the middle of the night. Rather, tonight’s mission is akin to a wellness check: We’re going to scoop up birds, put identifying color bands on their legs, take a few measurements, draw some blood, and clip a couple feathers. Then we’ll let them go.

If you’ve ever been out on a lake in Maine, you know loons can be elusive. Getting a close look without binoculars is almost impossible: When you move, they move. There’s no shrinking the distance between you and the birds. But tonight, promises David Evers, the organizer of this expedition, the loons are going to swim right up to our boat and let us grab them — provided we can find them, of course.

Evers is the boyishly handsome 50-something founder, executive director, and chief scientist of the Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI), a Portland-based organization that assesses threats to wildlife and ecosystems around the world — everything from evaluating DNA damage in Virginia’s brown bats to monitoring mercury levels in Russia’s seabirds. Common loons — the dramatically checkered black-and-white species whose wraithlike call haunts Maine’s lakes at night — are his specialty. He’s been studying them since 1989, when he was a graduate student on sabbatical in Michigan’s Seney National Wildlife Refuge. In 1995, his expertise attracted the attention of a Central Maine Power staff biologist who was monitoring loons as part of the utility’s federal hydroelectric relicensing requirements. Evers spent a few years working for CMP, then founded BRI, which today monitors about 200 breeding loon pairs in the Umbagog and Rangeley lakes area for power companies and conducts studies for state and federal wildlife agencies at about a dozen common loon conservation research sites throughout the northern United States. This summer, as part of a five-year, $6.5 million Ricketts Conservation Foundation grant to restore loons to areas where they’ve disappeared, BRI will take five chicks from Maine and relocate them to Massachusetts, where there are only 38 breeding pairs.

loon in net
The key to capturing a loon is to blind it with a spotlight, then summon it by peenting — or mimicking a chick’s call. Researchers from the Portland-based Biodiversity Research Institute take measurements and feathers, draw blood, and band the birds before releasing them unharmed.

It was at Seney that Evers became known as the guy who figured out how to capture loons. He’d spent a few weeks futilely chasing the waterfowl in an effort to find a reliable method for banding them, and his sabbatical was coming to a frustrating end. “I was leaning over the boat, and there was this tiny chick that had hatched just a few nights earlier,” he recalled. “The chick was peenting” — Evers made a soft, swishy whistle — “and I mimicked it. As soon as I did, the adult turned around and came right at me.”

Loons, it turns out, are compelled by a parental hormone to respond to a chick’s cry — they just can’t say no, even when their own chick is right beside them.

Since that night at Seney, Evers and his BRI researchers have caught, banded, and followed more than 5,000 loons. Peenting — Evers has mastered the sound, but most field scientists use recordings — only works at night, when researchers can hide behind a spotlight, and it only works with breeding loons during the first few weeks of their chicks’ lives.

That time is now on Little Sebago, BRI’s loon conservation specialist Lee Attix tells us as we take our seats in the aluminum powerboat he uses to monitor the birds here and on lakes in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. During the past three weeks, seven chicks have been hatched to five of Little Sebago’s seven mating pairs; some are just a few days old.

Searching for loons on a Maine lake
We’re looking at a small, dark mound on the lake’s surface, at the far end of the spotlight’s reach.

By the time we leave the dock, darkness has set in. Cottages glow on the shoreline. Music and voices drift faintly over the lake. The air is warm and humid. Attix steers our boat south, through Lower Narrows to Hunger Bay. He drops the boat to trolling speed, and BRI wildlife veterinarian Ginger Stout, a petite blonde whose field experience includes taking blood samples from grizzlies in Alberta (yes, they were sedated), sweeps a spotlight slowly over the water’s surface, illuminating thick clouds of frenetically darting bugs that until now we hadn’t noticed.

“Go back left,” Attix says abruptly. Stout drags the light back a few feet. “More left.” Attix peers down the length of the light beam. “Come back right . . . a little more . . . right there: that’s a loon.”

We’re looking at a small, dark mound on the lake’s surface, at the far edge of the spotlight’s reach, perhaps 100 feet away. Attix turns off the engine, and we drift silently toward the silhouette, which soon does indeed reveal itself to be a loon, with two dusky chicks in tow. Standing in the bow, a long-handled salmon net in his hands, Evers makes the soft, swishy whistle he’d demonstrated earlier in the evening. The loon, its head cocked, one eye to the light, glides toward us and lets loose a long, plaintive wail. Evers peents again. This time, the approaching loon responds with the loopy, high-pitched territorial call of a male. Suddenly there’s a clamor in the bow as Evers reaches over the gunwale, then swings the net, heavy now with its prize, into the boat, showering us with a startlingly warm, wet spray. A shrill hoot slices the air.

For the past 30 years, common loon populations have been declining throughout their core range — mostly Canada and the northern fringe of the United States — due in large part to lead poisoning from ingested fishing tackle, mercury contamination from coal-fired plant emissions, collisions with speeding boats, and entanglements in discarded fishing line. The birds are bordering on extirpation in Wyoming, threatened in New Hampshire and Michigan, and a species of special concern in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. But in Maine, they are going strong. In July 2015, Maine Audubon Society volunteers counted more than 3,000 loons on 300 lakes and ponds — the largest population of common loons in the US after Minnesota and Wisconsin.

It hasn’t always been so. Only 1,500 birds were recorded in 1983, the year that Maine Audubon launched the count in response to lake residents’ concerns about a decline in the loon population.

loon on a Maine lake
“You have to babysit a species like the loon, because they live long and produce few young.” — David Evers

So what changed? People did, for one thing. “We find that when we have a location where people are paying more attention — whether it’s because a lake association has put together an educational program or the Maine Audubon Society is holding its loon count — then we tend to get a decrease in some of the human-caused mortalities,” says Mark Pokras, a Tufts Wildlife Clinic emeritus associate professor who has performed nearly 3,000 necropsies on New England loons over the past 30 years. “People tend to drive their motorboats more carefully, or they collect their monofilament fishing lines so animals can’t get tangled in it. A huge component of solving the problem of loon mortality is increasing public awareness.”

The Maine loon counters, in fact, are often the same people who send carcasses to Pokras, whose data helped convince state legislators to ban the sale and use of some lead sinkers in 2002 — a ban that has since been toughened to include more kinds of lead fishing tackle. Loon count data, meanwhile, has influenced the siting of boat launches and subdivisions, says Susan Gallo, the Maine Audubon wildlife biologist who oversees the project, which engages roughly 1,000 volunteers.

Conservationists and wildlife researchers focus on loons for both pragmatic and emotional reasons. As animals at the top of the food chain, loons are good indicators of contaminants like mercury. “Plus, they’re charismatic birds,” Gallo says. “They’re big and striking, and if you’re on a lake in Maine, you’re going to hear those amazing wails. People are passionate about loons — they represent wilderness, remoteness, and peacefulness. Their presence is a sign that everything is going right. For Maine Audubon, they’re a good way to get people involved in caring for our lakes’ water quality. You can tell people how the phosphates in their detergent are going to affect all the little microscopic creatures, and it won’t have much of an impact. But if you say that loons won’t be able to live there because they won’t be able to see the fish, they get interested. Maine Audubon’s interest goes beyond the loon: you won’t have loons in a lake that doesn’t have healthy fish or clean water.”

loon and baby loon on a Maine lake
“Maine is contributing to helping expand loons’ breeding range — that’s a great thing.” — David Evers

Things do seem to be going right for loons in Maine, but the population is vulnerable nonetheless. “You have to babysit a species like the loon, because they live long and produce few young,” says Evers. “If a few adults are lost, it really makes a dent in the population.”

Loons live up to 30 years, but they don’t start breeding until they are about 6 years old, and then they produce just one or two chicks a year. The odds are against the chicks — only one in four makes it to breeding age (unlike adult loons, whose gravest threats come from humans, the babies are more likely to fall prey to predators, parasites, and deprivation of nourishment by bigger and stronger siblings).

Loons are ferociously — even lethally — territorial about their freshwater breeding grounds (they winter on the coast — a short migration for Maine’s birds, which explains why, at roughly 12 pounds, they are twice the size of their Midwestern and Great Lakes counterparts). In fact, Evers says, loons’ legendary monogamy is more about fidelity to territory than mate. Male and female will return to their breeding grounds together or separately, but the spring can also bring challengers, often 6-year-olds who are ready to breed for the first time. Males fight males and females fight females, aggressively beating each other with their wings and stabbing at each other’s throats and breasts with their dagger-like bills. The victors then pair up and reign over the territory.

loons on a Maine lake

Over the course of several years, Lee Attix watched a shifting line of succession on Little Sebago’s Horse Island. A year after BRI banded a pair there, a new male took over, taking up with the original female. A couple years later, the female was usurped. The next year, the original male returned, and the year after that, he was back with the original female. “It’s fascinating stuff that we never would have known without the banding,” Attix says.

Breeding loons need a lot of room — they typically defend about 100 acres — and chick productivity declines as the potential for territorial disputes go up. This may explain why the number of chicks recorded by Maine’s loon count has varied widely from year to year, showing no steady increase. “One theory is that Maine has maxed out its breeding habitat — that we now have as many loons as we can have,” Gallo says. “Nonbreeders can be detrimental to the population — the more there are, the more disruptive they are to the nesters.”

That’s where Maine has a role in the Ricketts Conservation Foundation initiative, Restore the Loon, which was conceived by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, a billionaire better known for his support of conservative political causes. As the sole recipient of the foundation’s $6.5 million grant, BRI is delving more deeply into the causes of the common loon population decline and attempting to restore loons to their former breeding range by seeding them with chicks from regions with robust populations, like Maine. Loons won’t repopulate those areas on their own, Evers says. “They’re poor colonizers,” he explains. “They may migrate through areas where there is great habitat, but they just want to go home.” Transrelocation has worked with chicks of other species, such as ospreys, trumpeter swans, and whooping cranes, but this is the first time it’s been attempted with loons.

loon on the edge of a lake in Maine

BRI, in partnership with state conservation agencies and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, has moved 16 chicks from northern to southern Minnesota and seven chicks from New York to southeastern Massachusetts through the Restore the Loon project since 2013. It’s too soon to know if the translocations have been successful: young loons stay on the ocean for the first two to three years of their life before returning to their natal lakes. This summer, Massachusetts will receive another 10 chicks — five from Maine and five from New York. “Usually, we grab the smallest chick from a two-chick family, because often that chick doesn’t make it — the adults focus on the larger, stronger chick,” Evers says. “We’ll be sensitive to areas where people spend a lot of time watching loons and work with loon families that aren’t squarely in the public eye. Maine is contributing to helping expand loons’ breeding range in New England — that’s a great thing.”

Our loon is feisty, and it takes two people to remove him from the net. Evers holds his bill (“loons will go for your face,” he explains), while Attix maneuvers the bird onto his lap, wrapping one arm firmly around his body and securing his neck under the other. Their headlamps reveal white poop splattered on our clothing and the deck (so that explains the unexpected warmth of that splash earlier).

loon taking off from a Maine lake

Evers works quickly, banding and measuring the bird’s legs and clipping two feathers each from wings and tail (they’ll grow back). He and Attix turn the loon upside down, so Stout can poke a needle into a bulging vein behind the black webbed foot (the loon doesn’t flinch) and thread blood into three vials, which, along with the feathers, will be analyzed for contaminants like mercury. Finally, the loon is dropped back into the net and weighed. The whole process takes about 15 minutes. When it’s over, Evers and Stout — he’s got the beak, she’s got the body — lower the loon into the water, and he scoots way, wing-running on the water’s surface out of sight. His loopy yodel echoes out of the darkness. Peents — real ones — reply. The family has reunited.

We spend another couple of hours on Little Sebago. The last rain clouds disappear, and we watch the stars come out and the moon rise. Fireworks crackle somewhere in the distance. In Policeman’s Cove, we capture three loons — first, a male, and then his partner, who comes to the boat with their chick on her back. The soft, fuzzy baby sits compliantly in my lap while its mother is measured and weighed.

It’s after midnight when we return to the boat launch, and the lake is silent, but for the wails of the loons.

What You Can Do

Maine Audubon Society’s Maine Loon Project engages volunteers in assessing the status and future of the state’s loon population in several ways:

Baby loon chick on a lake in Maine

Maine Loon Count. Join Maine’s largest citizen science effort on the third Saturday in July, 7–7:30 a.m. Email wildlife biologist Susan Gallo at sgallo@maineaudubon.org

Fish Lead-Free Tackle Exchanges. Maine Audubon provides presentation materials and lead-tackle to community groups setting up tackle exchanges. Email fishleadfree@maineaudubon.org

LoonSmart Camps. Modeled after the Maine Lake Society’s LakeSmart Award, the new LoonSmart Award recognizes homeowners whose practices protect loon habitat. Visit mainelakessociety.org/lakesmart

Summer Monitoring of Loons. Volunteers record information, such as the timing of migration, mating, and the appearance of chicks, through a partnership between Maine Audubon and the University of Maine’s Signs of the Seasons New England Phenology Program. Sign up at umaine.edu/signs-of-the-season