A loon drifts with chicks on its back. (Photo courtesy of John Rockwood/Loon Preservation Committee)
By DAVID CARKHUFF, LACONIA DAILY SUN
MOULTONBOROUGH — In 2016, the Loon Preservation Committee has embarked on more than twice the number of loon rescues as in past years, the organization reported. This surge in activity partly stemmed from a bout with erratic weather.
But, the weather that played havoc with loon populations wasn't the cold snap afflicting New Hampshire this month. It was a warming pattern that kicked off last winter.
"We're happy to see a more normal winter," said Harry Vogel, senior biologist and executive director of the organization.
"This is the time when the lakes are freezing in, so we're tracking several cases where loons are in danger of being caught," Vogel said.
"We monitor these birds, and if we can safely do so, we go out and try to rescue them," he said.
But loon protectors aren't as anxious about this year's mid-December cold snap and the ensuing subzero temperatures — Laconia hit 4 below zero around 6:15 a.m. Friday, according to the National Weather Service.
"It's actually better than if we have a late cold snap," Vogel said.
"Loons, like other birds, sense the changing of the seasons. When the lakes begin to skim over with ice, that's usually the last straw for the loons," and they migrate to the ocean, Vogel explained. "The vast majority of our loons at this point are on the ocean."
But last winter posed a more difficult scenario.
A warm early winter in 2015-2016 followed by a freeze affected loon migration, as ice formed late at the worst possible time.
"Last year, we had a very bad year for loons being iced in," Vogel said.
A warm winter with lakes open until January followed by a freeze caught the water birds during wing molt, when they weren't as equipped to escape the ice.
"We much prefer a more typical winter like this where we have lakes freezing in, in a more normal pattern," Vogel said.
The New Hampshire Lakes Association explains the life cycle of loons, noting that adult loons leave their offspring behind until flight feathers are long enough to support the chicks' weight. Loon chicks leave their "birth lake" just before it freezes and "won't return to their birth lake until they are approximately 3 or 4 years old, and they won't be able to reproduce until they are 6 or 7."
The Loon Preservation Committee counts 293 pairs of loons in New Hampshire. Recovery of the birds is being slowed down by a combination of stress factors, including encroachment on habitat and outdated lead-based fishing tackle, Vogel said.
"I would characterize 2016 as a good year, not a great year for loons," he said.
"We gained a total of four pairs this year from last year, our population has been growing by about 1 percent per year over the last five years," Vogel said.
Of the 198 chicks hatched throughout the state, nine out of 10 benefited from Loon Preservation Committee management, such as installation of warning signs and rope lines and coordination with dam operators to maintain lake levels, he said.
The Loon Preservation Committee worked with New Hampshire Fish and Game and the New Hampshire Legislature to reduce loon mortality, particularly through passage of Senate Bill 89. Effective June 1, 2016, the law made it illegal to use or sell lead sinkers or lead-headed jigs weighing 1 ounce or less in New Hampshire.
Lead is by far the largest known cause of loon mortality in the state, Vogel noted.
In a population as small as New Hampshire's loon population, any disturbance can endanger nesting pairs.
"The key to maintaining a viable loon population is to keep adult loons alive," Vogel said.
New Hampshire's loon population numbers about a third of the density as seen in areas of Canada with less human impact, he said.
According to its website (http://www.loon.org), the Loon Preservation Committee "has created the most complete and longest-running database of loon populations and productivity that exists anywhere in the world, and conducted the most comprehensive research ever undertaken on contaminants and other challenges facing loons."
Loons are a state-threatened species and are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
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