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At home on the water, looking for loons


Friday, August 11, 2017

That speck in the photo, kayak paddle at the diagonal, soon was out of sight around a bend in Hunt’s Pond in Hancock — where one loon was found and noted.

Each summer Carl and I host the Loon Preservation Committee’s field biologist for this region. It was a rainy day and I asked Emily if she was going out.

“You bet.”

Of course. Loons aren’t bothered by rain, and Emily by now is at home on the water, sunshine or rain — as long as there’s no chance of lightning.

As for wind, there’s no day off if winds on water are fierce.

Her assignment, to survey 85 waterbodies for loons, doesn’t allow many days off. A typical day means five, maybe six. If there’s what looks to be a territorial pair, return visits are needed. If there’s a chick or chicks, more visits to determine survival.

Emily has seen a lot of newborn chicks on a parent’s back, a definite perk of the job. As soon as the fluffballs hatch, they hop on for warmth and safety, snuggled out of sight if needed.

Loons nest close to shore, visible to predators. Their legs are positioned far back on their bodies to power deep dives and underwater pursuit of fish. Lack of mobility on land is the trade-off.

As soon as the chicks hatch, all head for the comparative safety of water.

Emily’s chick total is 22, and kayak lifts off and then back on her car easily top 150. I thought I’d include that photo, too.

Her worst day, I suspect, was trying to wrestle a rope barrier and loon nesting sign in place near a nest at Willard Pond. Fierce wind. Wading among dense windblown shoreline flotsam, hanging on to sign, rope and kayak, a large water snake swam her way “looking very angry.”

Her best — and longest: rescuing a loon with fishing line snagged around its bill, driving it to wildlife rehabilitator Maria Colby at Wings of Dawn in Henniker, and returning it back to its nest area.

Ordinarily, the Loon Preservation Committee sends a rescue team, but it was the end of the day and the loon appeared lethargic, likely from an inability to feed. After consultation with LPC, Emily was given the go-ahead based on her past experience working with a raptor rehabilitator.

She headed off, apprehensive but determined to succeed. A good combination.

This past week another loon with fishing line tangled around its head was reported, and Emily returned to the lake with net and holding box but the loon had moved on. She found it days later on another lake, diving and “frisky.” Not lethargic. There was no chance for a capture.

For the loons and other wildlife: If you find fishing line on shore or water, remove it; when fishing, make every effort to retrieve any snapped or snagged line.

I asked Emily how she came by her connection to the natural world, with conservation and the environment her chosen life path. Her answer: “I went to the creek.” She repeated that a few times, and said her cousins did, too. “We were always messing around there.” Turning over rocks to see what’s under them, wearing crawdads as earrings.

Indiana has crawdads and creeks; New Hampshire has crayfish and brooks.

By chance, the summer issue of “Northern Woodlands” magazine includes some waterbody etymology. River, referring to a large, moving body of water, is Latin in origin. Latin-derived words, says the article, were for important things. Stream, less important, is Saxon in origin. More common, and therefore of more common lineage: Anglo-Saxon. Not Latin.

Creek, perhaps related to crook the article says, has come to mean streams with many bends, and often is regional in use. Emily said the creek of her childhood had swimming holes among the bends.

Now, writing about “going to the creek,” I remember meandering Hobbs Brook of my New England childhood. I went to the brook the way Emily went to the creek. It meandered slowly through a field, its bottom smooth and sandy along that level stretch, aquatic grasses hypnotic as they waved in the current. When the brook resumed its downhill slant, it flowed straight, shallow and rocky.

No matter its form or name, water draws us in. The river flows, waves wash shore, tides rise and fall.

“I went to the creek.” May there be healthy creeks for the generations ahead to mess around in, and may they spawn many environmentalists.

Backyard Birder by Francie Von Mertens appears every other week in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.