Karen Bobotas photos/for The Laconia Daily Sun
This year, only one loon chick has hatched on Squam Lake, blue heron shot
By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
The summer might have seemed placid for most Lakes Region residents, but some wildlife suffered while their human neighbors were enjoying the sun and pleasant weather.
One such animal was a great blue heron that was discovered by Lynn Rowe, a Gilford resident, when she and her boyfirend were driving past Gunstock Mountain Resort on Aug. 19. The heron was walking along the side of the road, and Rowe suspected something was wrong. After a couple of calls, she was referred to Maria Colby, at Wings of the Dawn Wildlife Rehabilitation Center and Bird Sanctuary, who said that if Rowe could catch it, she should take it to an emergency veterinarian.
“Whenever I see an animal in need, I do what I can to help them,” said Rowe.
Rowe and her boyfriend, Tim Colvin, were able to track the heron through the woods until it stumbled, then they gathered it in their arms, being careful to hold its neck steady so that it didn’t strike at them with its long beak. At Concord Area Veterinarian Emergency and Specialty, though, X-rays revealed troubling news. The heron had been shot, with the projectile damaging a joint in its wing, and it would never fly again. The heron had to be euthanized.
The incident was unlike anything Rowe had experienced before. She was encouraged by the way the animal rescue professionals acted, but troubled by the thought of someone shooting at a heron.
“I was so impressed with the way it was handled, and so horrified that peeople were shooting birds indiscriminately,” she said.
“I was hoping for a better outcome,” said Colby, who added that the heron, a male, appeared to have been in good health prior to its injury. “It’s uncommon to have a bird come in that has been shot, a bird that is not a game species.”
Chris Brison, a conservation officer with the state Fish and Game Department, said he is keeping the heron case open, but so far doesn’t have any more leads to follow.
“The investigation is pretty much over, unless we get any more information from someone,” Brison said. The veterinarian at CAVES removed a pellet from the wing, leading Brison to believe that an air gun was used to shoot the bird, and that it was probably in flight when it was shot.
“Shooting herons is definitely an illegal thing,” Brison said. The person who committed the crime could be charged with a federal offense, which could bring a prison sentence and heavy fines. More likely, the state would consider a plea deal for a lesser sentence that would still assure that there wouldn’t be a repeat offense.
In Brison’s experience, it’s very rare for herons to be shot. He hears more often about birds of prey, such as hawks, being shot by people who are protecting their pigeon or chicken flock. “That doesn’t give you an excuse to shoot birds of prey,” though, he cautioned. “We do deal with those people accordingly.”
Brison suspects a child is responsible for shooting the heron, though it could also have been a fishermen. It’s not uncommon for some fishermen to bear resentment toward birds that eat fish.
In fact, that’s who Brison suspects was responsible for the shooting of two loons that each washed ashore on Lake Winnipesaukee a couple of years ago. Both birds were killed by the same type of round – a subsonic .22, possibly from a pistol. Brison said it’s an unusual type of round, and one that local sports shops don’t carry. Because the birds were discovered during a fishing derby, he suspects that an out-of-town fisherman killed the loons, though the case was never solved.
“We didn’t catch those guys, but it would have been nice to,” he said, noting that the bullets pulled from the dead loons are still being held as evidence, in case there’s a similar case in the future.
On Squam Lake, however, the loon population is suffering from a different kind of human behavior, chemical contamination.
Squam Lakes biologist Tiffany Grade, who works with the Loon Preservation Committee, said that the 13 pairs of adult loons on Squam were only able to produce a single chick this year.
“Sometimes we had as many as 15 chicks surviving, so this is quite a decline from where we should be,” Grade said. The single chick has survived, but Grade is very concerned about what was found when they studied the eggs that never hatched.
“It’s a combination of things,” said Grade. “It’s a chemical cocktail, things that have been banned for decades, as well as more recent contaminants.” The contaminants included the pesticide DDT, which has been banned since 1972, as well as chemicals used as flame retardant and stain repellant.
“We found these at levels of two to nine times as high on Squam as we’ve found on other lakes,” said Grade. “The other issue that Squam his is a much higher rate of mortality from lead fishing tackle compared with the statewide rate – twice the state rate. What we think happened on Squam is that ... they reached a tipping point.”
2017 was a historically bad year for loons on Squam. In the LPC’s 42 years of monitoring the lake’s loons, this is the only year in which only a single loon chick was hatched.
This is not the first time that contamination on Squam was noticed. There was a spike of contamination from 2005 to to 2007, likely caused by a disturbance of contaminated soil near the lake, which then flowed downstream into Squam. During that period, nearly half of Squam’s adult loons died.
“It knocked the legs out from that population,” Grade said. “As the years went on, we could never get that population to stabilize, because we kept losing those loons to lead. It’s this combination of things that has hit the population so hard, they can’t recover from it.”
Grade said that biologists don’t have a good understanding of how these contaminants – DDT, PCBs and dioxins – affect loons, and their understanding is especially lacking when it comes to this combination of contaminants. But, she said, these chemicals, on their own, are known to cause health and reproductive effects in other bird species, even at levels far less than what they’re observing in the loons on Squam.
She wonders if the chemicals are having behavioral effects as well.
When new loons come to Squam, taking the place of one that died, they engage in disputes with other loons to establish each bird’s territory. Once they’ve come to an understanding, though, things settle down. Grade is seeing a lot of territorial fighting on Squam, and that fighting can disrupt incubation. She wonders if the high levels of contaminants is to blame.
“With all this fighting, you just have to wonder,” she said.
The LPC is working with DES and the Squam Lakes Association to further study the contamination and determine what should be done to mitigate its damage. She is optimistic that Squam will one day be a healthy lake for loons to live.
“I hope so, I very much hope so. I think the key to restoring a healthy population on Squam is to keep these adults alive. Loons require not just a stable environment, they require a stable social structure. When there’s a disruption in the system, as there is in Squam, it takes a long time for the loon species to recover... it casts a long shadow.”
But I think that time will be on their side if we can give them a safe and clean environment, they will get back to the business of raising loon chicks.”
A loon swims on Lake Wicwas. Only one loon chick survived this year on Squam Lake. (Karen Bobotas/for The Laconia Daily Sun)