MOULTONBOROUGH — At about mid-morning on Thursday, a small but hardy group of people set out from a beach on Lake Winnipesaukee’s Ragged Island with the aim of swimming or paddling a 1-mile course around the island. As they entered the water, a curious group of seven loons paddled in for a closer look, then sent the group on their way with a chorus that only loons could provide.
It was a fitting send-off, as the swimmers and kayakers were participating in the second annual “Winni Swim,” founded by Brenda Gallagher and Pam Halsey as a benefit for the Loon Preservation Committee.
There weren’t as many participants in this year’s event. Low turnout was blamed on forecasts predicting — inaccurately — thunderstorms, but those who thumbed their noses at the meteorologists said they’d like to come back for a third one, which they hoped would feature a lower risk of electrocution.
Among the swimmers was Maureen Casey, a Gilford girl who now lives in Maryland, who also participated in the first Winni Swim. She has entered many other athletic events, she said, but the Winni Swim is different.
“There’s no pressure — it’s not a competition — you’re here to support each other, and it’s something you normally wouldn’t do.”
Casey said she knew she would have fun at the event, and she was happy to come back “to support the cause.”
For more than 40 years, one of New Hampshire’s biggest lakes had no nesting loons. Then, a few years ago, a loon chick hatched on Lake Sunapee.
“People lost their minds,” said Harry Vogel, executive director of the Loon Preservation Committee. This summer, Sunapee has three nesting pairs of loons, two of which were successful in producing offspring.
It’s that kind of outcome that the Loon Preservation Committee was founded to achieve. The nonprofit organization dates back to 1975, in response to concerns about the increasing scarcity of the large black-and-white bird that provides New Hampshire lakes with their summer soundtrack. At that time, there were about 100 nesting pairs of loons — dangerously low for a state thought to have up to 600 pairs at its peak.
It’s not easy to restore a loon population, Vogel said. They’re a long-living bird, perhaps living up to 30 years, and they require at least five years before they are mature enough to reproduce. Then, each pair of loons will produce one or two eggs per year, if they nest at all. Loon preservation requires a long outlook.
There are advantages, too. Foremost is the fact that loons are charismatic creatures. There’s the sound of their undulating call, of course. Then there’s their size, which by weight can approach goose levels. Lastly, there’s the endearing way a parent will ferry its fuzzy chicks around on its back as it paddles along.
Humans, “even those who couldn’t tell a house sparrow from a house finch,” Vogel said, tend to have a soft spot for loons. That’s important, because the only way to allow for the loon population to rebound in New Hampshire is to change human behavior, he said.
In 1993, the Loon Preservation Committee opened a brick-and-mortar center in Moultonborough, and has been expanding its operation ever since. It now monitors loons and analyzes habitat quality across the state, with the goal of restoring the iconic aquatic bird to the population it once had.
As the Loon Preservation Committee has grown, so, too, have the fortunes of local loons. Last year, biologists counted 309 pairs of loons in waters across the state — three times more than when the LPC was founded more than 40 years ago, and cresting the triple-century mark for the first time.
It’s something to be proud of, but Vogel isn’t resting on any laurels. There are still plenty of threats to loons in New Hampshire, most of which are human-related.
“Winnipesaukee is having a bad year for loons,” Vogel said, looking at the septet of birds observing the motley group embarking on their round-Ragged trip. Loons raising chicks are seen either solo or in pairs. When they’re seen in larger numbers, it’s either because their chicks are grown enough to fend for themselves or — which is likely the case this year — they were unsuccessful in breeding this year and have given up for the season.
With 44,000 acres, Winnipesaukee is big enough to provide a home for more than 50 pairs of loons. These days, LPC is happy if there are more than 20. This summer, only three chicks have survived so far on the state’s biggest lake.
Loons nest on the shoreline, and as more of the shoreline is developed, there are fewer possibilities for couples looking to make a family. Even if they are able to find a spot, their nest could get swamped by rain.
It’s not so much how much rain falls in the course of a summer, Vogel said; it’s when it falls. Years ago, scientists predicted that climate change would mean more heavy rains for the Lakes Region, and that’s what has come to fruition. If water levels rise more than six inches over the course of two days, it could submerge a nest.
One of the Preservation Committee’s nest cams observed just that earlier this summer. The water level was rising after a period of heavy rain and the loons were frantically trying to build up their nest to keep it above water level ... so frantic, in fact, that they buried one of their two eggs.
“We’re already seeing the impact of climate change on our loons here in New Hampshire. It’s here and it’s real,” Vogel said.
A solution has been found, however, that addresses both the loss of shoreline and fluctuating water levels. The Loon Preservation Committee now maintains nearly 90 nesting rafts throughout the state, about half of which are occupied in any given year by nesting loons. They find a greater success rate than when they nest on the shoreline because the rafts rise and fall with water levels, and they can even be covered to provide shade.
The rafts don’t help with the greatest risk to loon health, though: lead.
The single greatest cause of loon mortality remains the ingestion of lead, usually from lead tackle. Loons ingest pebbles from the lake bottom in order for them to digest the fish that they swallow hole, and it would be easy for them to swallow a lead sinker or jig lying on the lake bottom. If they do, they’ll show signs of illness almost immediately.
Loon rescue is one of the services that the Preservation Committee provides, and they will bring a sick loon to a veterinarian for an x-ray.
“If we see a bright metal object in that x-ray, it’s all over for that bird,” Vogel said. The only course of action at that point is euthanasia. “It’s the worst part of the job, and we’re tired of it,” he said.
That’s why, last year, they offered a pilot program to reduce the amount of lead fishing tackle in the state. Since 2016, it’s been illegal to use lead in tackle weighing one ounce or less. However, lead poisoning continues to be the leading cause of loon mortality in New Hampshire. Eight loons died after ingesting lead last year, and six have died so far this year.
In response, the Loon Preservation Committee partnered with two tackle shops last year to pilot a lead tackle buy-back program. If people brought in old tackle, the shop would take the lead items back and offer an LPC-funded $10 certificate for use in replacing the toxic tackle with something safe for loons and other wildlife.
“Last year, we collected over 4,700 pieces of tackle, any one of which would have killed a loon,” Vogel said. “We decided to hugely expand that this year.”
The Preservation Committee is now partnering with nine stores around the state. Locally, those shops include AJ’s Bait and Tackle in Meredith, Newfound Sales and Trading Post in Bristol, and Squam Boat Livery in Holderness. They encourage people to “get grandpa’s old tackle box from the dusty corner of the garage,” Vogel said, and ensure that those lead sinkers are no longer a threat.
Eliminating the use of lead tackle is one of two simple steps that Vogel said humans can take to keep their environment welcoming to loons. The other is to keep a wide berth around loon nests so the parents can do their job.
Ultimately, Vogel’s goal is to create a “culture of respect and appreciation” for loons. “That’s when loons will thrive.”