MOULTONBOROUGH — It's been an unusually warm start to December, which may be keeping snowbirds around a bit later. Those local residents that have delayed their annual escape to a winter home in a warmer climate might be noticing another of the region's summer faithful – loons – also seem to be sticking around later than usual.
In fact, that's not the case, according to John Cooley, biologist at the Loon Preservation Committee in Moultonborough. Loons generally leave the lakes where they spend the spring, summer and fall by a schedule that is encoded in their DNA, not by changing temperature.
"The timing is hard-wired by instinct," he said.
Non-breeding adults may leave as early as August. Adults who have been rearing chicks will stay into October, or even late November.
"The juvenile loons tend to stay a little longer than the adults, and there always are a few juveniles and adults that push the envelope," said Cooley.
It's not unusual for lakes to still have loons this late into the year. It will be difficult for the casual birdwatcher to tell juvenile loons apart from adults, as both have gray and white plumage as opposed to the iconic black and white the bird is known for.
Much of the concern that onlookers experience can be traced back to the winter of 2006-2007, when over 20 loons were stranded on Winnipesaukee in late January after a very late ice-in caught them during their flightless mid-winter feather molt.
"People who have heard that story certainly know that there can be a problem," said Cooley.
Loons are evolved to be expert swimmers, with dense bodies and feet placed at the rear of their body. These adaptations make it unable for the bird to take off from a hard surface, and they need a long stretch of open water to take flight.
"In 99 percent of the cases, the lingering loon does take off," said Cooley, adding that the Loon Preservation Committee will look for signs of clear distress before attempting to intervene.
After the loons leave local lakes, they will spend their winters at the coast. Cooley said local birds will be found anywhere from the Maine coast to Cape Cod.
2015 has been a great year for the loon population on Lake Winnipesaukee. According to Cooley, there were 28 pairs of breeding adults, who produced 29 chicks. Of those chicks, 23 survived, making it the most successful breeding year in over a decade. Winnipesaukee currently has about half as many loons as what biologists estimate it would naturally have.
"We're in the midst of a slow, gradual and intensively managed recovery back to where it should be," he said.
However, serious threats to loons remain.
"We are continuing to see adult mortality from lead fishing tackle and boat strikes," he said.
Loons survive for decades and produce a couple of chicks per year, so Cooley said each adult bird is vital to the effort to repopulate the lakes. A single case of lead poisoning casts what he calls a "long shadow" on conservation efforts.
Loon conservationists, in the Lakes Region and throughout New Hampshire, are also beginning to fear that changing climate patterns could undo all their work. Early summer deluges, once rare in this region, are now becoming a frequent occurrence. Because loons nest at the shoreline, these heavy rain events can flood their nests, forcing adults to abandon their eggs or newly hatched chicks.
Warming temperatures could also drive the loons away. Cooley noted that in New Hampshire loons are at the southern extreme of the bird's geographical distribution. If average temperatures rise by a few degrees, he said, "There could well be effects on temperature and physiology of loons... Changing climate is likely to have a profound effect on the loon population."
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