Just after sunset, as darkness began to fall over Newark Pond, a searchlight on a boat shone on the water, as it floated towards a pair of breeding loons.
It was August 2, 1998. Eric Hanson, then a 32-year-old visiting biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, pulled out a cassette player and started playing mad calls. Wails, whistles and shivering sounded across the lake, convincing the pair that there was a third loon in their turf.
As the loons became distracted by the calls and mesmerized by the light, the crew on board shot a large salmon fishing net in front of them. At the spray, the mad male instinctively dived swimming directly into the net. Lifting the loon out of the water, Hanson quickly placed a towel over his head to calm him, then walked back to shore.
An elaborate dance took place on the grassy bank over the next 20 minutes. Two people held the bird down, while a third person took blood and feather samples to test for mercury as part of a regional study.
Before releasing the mate into the pond, Hanson placed two bands on each of its legs, green on orange on the left and yellow on a silver US Fish and Wildlife band on the right unique combinations with an identification number of 898-09100.
Those bands have allowed biologists in Vermont to track this nut for the past 25 years. That bird could show up on Long Island or Massachusetts, and you could report it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service laboratory, Hanson said. They would be able to look up that combined band and tell exactly where that bird was banded.
On Tuesday, Newark Pond Male, as Hanson refers to the loony, was found dead recently at an estimated age of 31. He was the oldest documented lunatic in Vermont. It’s possible it could be even older, since that age is based on the assumption that the loon was 6 years old and in its first year of nesting during that first encounter, Hanson said.
Over the past 45 years, the Loon Conservation Project, led by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies and supported by the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, has helped restore the common loon to lakes across the state and made strides in research, education and in defense.
When Newark Pond Male was banded, the loon was still on Vermont’s endangered species list (it wouldn’t be released until 2005), but the population had already started to grow. That year, the researchers counted 40 territorial pairs, including 30 nesting pairs. By 2022 the total number of territorial pairs had risen to 139 with 106 breeding pairs.
As for Hanson, his four months of bandaging and collecting samples for mercury tests turned into a decade-long career as chief biologist of the Loon Conservation Project. Today he manages a team of biologists, as well as 400 local volunteers, and still uses a cassette player to blast crazy calls across a lake, though he says he intended to catch up.
The Vermont team is just one of many the band borrows to study. “We’re a small player in all of this,” Hanson said.
The 32 grebes that the team compiled between 1998 and 2003 added to the research that provided key information on the species. Banding has provided a way to track loons as they compete for territory and migrate in the winter months.
There was a period there for about 10 years that we haven’t seen (Newark Pond Male), Hanson said. So we think he may have been expelled from the territory for a few years, and then he was able to re-enter the territory.
The team noticed that grebes migrate to the ocean in winter and disperse to their breeding grounds, Hanson wrote in the Loon Conservation Project newsletter last year. Our Newark Pond male flies direct to Cape Cod and has traveled a staggering 15,000 miles in his lifetime.
Researchers have also learned through banding that loons don’t mate for life.
Fellow Newark Pond Males disappeared in the early 2000s. It’s possible she died or was challenged by another woman and lost her place in the lake, Hanson said. Loons are site-specific, rather than mate-specific, he said.
To me, it’s so cool that these birds are competing for territory, she said. They always check each other. Non-breeders monitor each other. They will have a dispute. They might keep it, they might lose it, and if they lose it, then there’s a change in mates.
Fingers crossed, his old age
Soon, the Newark Pond Male will be sent to Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, where Dr. Mark Pokras and a few of his students will conduct an autopsy to determine cause of death. Hanson expects to receive the results by mid-July.
Fingers crossed, I hope it’s more related to old age and competing with another nut, Hanson said. I’m always worried if it’s another lead sinker. [Pokras] I just made one that I collected last fall from Lake Champlain and sure enough. This may be the 11th head bird we’ve had in five years.
Necropsies, which the project initiated in collaboration with Dr. Pokras in 2020, confirmed that lead ingestion is the leading cause of death in grebes. Recently, the team also found a number of deaths related to fungal diseases.
In response to the increase in lead mortality, the team will launch a new initiative next month: the installation of containers around lakes, where lead tackle and fishing line can be safely dropped. The goal, Hanson said, is to try to just get more lead out of people’s toolboxes.
He also urges anglers to reel when loons pass so they don’t get caught in a line or chase after a fish attracted to the bait. Grebes can end up getting caught on a hook in their gizzard. They can actually survive because it’s an amazing organ for dissolving metals and stuff, he said. But if there’s a piece of lead on it, it’s a dead nut.
Newark Pond Male is far from the first fool Hanson has lost. I’m worried about my volunteers on that pond because they get so attached, he said. I joke that I put on my psychotherapist hat to do a lot of grief counseling every year.
Restoring the grebe’s natural life-death cycle at a rate that sustains a robust population is the ultimate goal of conservation efforts. Over the past decade, chick survival rates have declined by about 10%, mainly due to competition from other chicks and predatory bald eagles.
But Hanson isn’t worried. I’m actually hoping the competition slows the growth rate down a bit,” he said. Not a bad thing at all.
The death of Newark Pond Males comes as moody chicks are starting to hatch along the shores of Vermont’s wild lakes. Other breeding pairs are just starting to nest, starting a month-long incubation period in which loons are most vulnerable, Hanson said.
One of the drivers, probably, of why they declined so much 50, 60, 70 years ago was (that crazy people were) they just couldn’t make it past the nesting cycle, Hanson said.
With summer arriving and people starting to take their kayaks, canoes and motor boats out to the lakes, Hanson urges the public to keep away from loon nests, which are usually found on small islands or on shores. of the lakes. Many but not all nests are now equipped with warning signs warning boaters, canoeists and fishermen to maintain a distance of between 50 and 100 feet.
Those signs are already bearing fruit.
Volunteers at Lake Memphremagog reported the lake’s first breeding pair in over a decade, and Lake Rescue, which stretches from Plymouth to Ludlow, saw its first chick hatch.
They nested last year and failed. This year they have nested again. We have signs to help give them some space. And they were just born two or three days ago, Hanson said.
He added, “It’s the first time we’ve ever had a chick on that lake in 45 years of this project.” With care, they too can live for more than 30 years.
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