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Conservation

Watcher of the water

Meg Harrington spent the summer looking for local loons

  • Meg Harrington of the Loon Preservation Committee finishes surveying Pleasant Pond in Francestown.  This summer, Harrington was responsible for monitoring the loon population throughout the Monadnock region.
  • Meg Harrington of the Loon Preservation Committee finishes surveying Pleasant Pond in Francestown.  This summer, Harrington was responsible for monitoring the loon population throughout the Monadnock region.
  • Meg Harrington of the Loon Preservation Committee finishes surveying Pleasant Pond in Francestown.  This summer, Harrington was responsible for monitoring the loon population throughout the Monadnock region.
  • Meg Harrington of the Loon Preservation Committee finishes surveying Pleasant Pond in Francestown.  This summer, Harrington was responsible for monitoring the loon population throughout the Monadnock region.
  • Meg Harrington of the Loon Preservation Committee finishes surveying Pleasant Pond in Francestown.  This summer, Harrington was responsible for monitoring the loon population throughout the Monadnock region.

Meg Harrington looked frazzled late that August morning.

The 22-year-old conservation biologist, on her last survey of the summer, combed Pleasant Pond in her kayak for over an hour. Harrington was searching for a pair of the blackish-blue and checkered-white loons and their furry brown chicks. She found cracked eggshells in a cove without any scrapes from a predator. But she couldn’t spot the aquatic birds or their hatchlings.

Harrington wavered. Maybe she looked right past the loons. No, she thoroughly searched the lake. She could have missed them in the shadows of the late morning sun or in the waves. Maybe the chicks hatched, but didn’t live through the next day.

“I don’t think there are chicks on this lake,” Harrington ultimately said, “because the adults would have been here.”

The next day, Harrington, already in Moultonborough putting together statistics from the summer with the rest of the Loon Preservation Committee, received an update from a volunteer in Francestown. The volunteer spotted a loon and a chick on Pleasant Pond later Thursday afternoon. “Huh!” Harrington wrote in an email. Once the volunteer forwarded pictures to confirm she saw the birds, Harrington jubilantly wrote, “[The loons] are definitely there!”

From the middle of May to her last day, a week ago Thursday, Harrington was the Monadnock Region Field Biologist for the Loon Preservation Committee, an organization devoted to protecting loons in New Hampshire. When asked how far her responsibilities stretched, Harrington said early in the summer, she hiked to the summit of Mount Monadnock and looked out.

Everything the sunlight reached was the area she was responsible for, from Lempster to the south on the Massachusetts border, and west to Vermont.

Harrington monitored the number of loons in her district, 23 couples, and studied their nests and their hatched chicks, 11. Harrington also educated the public about steps they can take to support the recovery of loons, a threatened species in the Granite State.

Harrington said New Hampshire’s loon population is slowly improving after mercury and lead poisoning killed much of the adult population beginning in the 1970s.

“We still have a long way to go. [Loons] are not at their historic level. But things are getting better, which is really good,” she said.

An overarching goal of the Loon Preservation Committee, Harrington said, is to inform the public about how detrimental lead is to loons. Harrington referred to a statistic found by her organization, 49 percent of documented deaths of adult loons from 1989 to 2011 were from a bird ingesting a lead tackle. Harrington indicated this number could be higher. Typically, a loon will consume a fish that has snagged a lead tackle. A loon might also swallow lead with rock sediment it uses for its gizzard to grind and digest food.

Harrington said if people realized how their grandfather’s lead tackle affects a loon, she imagined they wouldn’t even consider using it.

“It’s a slow, long, and painful death.” Harrington said a loon suffering with lead will shake uncontrollably, and can’t stand up.

The Preservation Committee successfully lobbied New Hampshire Legislature and Governor Maggie Hassan in 2013 to pass Senate Bill 89. By 2016, this will ban the sale of lead fishing sinkers and jigs one ounce or less, and their use in freshwater.

Harrington also wants to educate the public about respecting loons and their nests.

Although this season from May to August is almost over, Harrington said you should remain at least 200 feet away from a loon’s nest. The loon pair rotates sitting on the eggs for about a month to ensure the eggs stay warm.

When a person approaches too close to a loon, the bird panics, Harrington said. Loons don’t move well on land like they do in the water. In the water, they can follow you curiously, and easily dive away if they become frightened. One problem with a panicking loon, Harrington said, is it might nervously abandon its nest, leaving its eggs vulnerable to predators or letting the eggs become too cool. If an egg becomes too cool, the chick won’t hatch.

Harrington said another important clue to look for is a loon with its head down. She said a loon burying its head means it’s about to flush into the water.

“Some people think it means they’re sleeping, or they’re relaxed. It doesn’t.” She said it means they’re panicking, and they’re about to flush into the water and abandon their eggs.

Harrington graduated this year from St. Lawrence University, receiving a degree in conservation biology. She applied for to be a field biologist for the Loon Preservation Committee when she was a sophomore. She first discovered this position by Googling “cool jobs in New Hampshire.”

“I thought, ‘Oh, that is cool.’ You paddle around all day. You’re not in front of a computer. You’re studying loons,” she said.

Harrington also said that especially on the water, loons are almost human.

“Sometimes they surprise you. They’re curious,” she said. “They’re not afraid of you.”

Once this summer, a loon followed her across the whole distance of a lake while she paddled in her kayak. She likened that experience of being trailed to the movie “Jaws.”

“Every time I looked back, there was just this white shadowy figure right behind my boat. I would stop. It would stop. I would paddle. It would keep going. It would pop up right there. Then it would hunch down, and go ‘uh.’ It went back under the water, and followed me around.”

Aside from the amazing experience of interacting face-to-face with the local loon population, Harrington said her job this summer was rewarding in many other ways. On a day-to-day basis, she was outside and exploring a new place, rather than sitting in front of a computer screen. Harrington, who hails from Londonderry, said her hometown doesn’t have lakes like in the Monadnock region.

Now that the nesting season is over, Harrington is looking forward to unpacking from college and relaxing.

Parent loons will migrate to the coastline about two months after their chicks hatch. Most loons in New Hampshire, Harrington said, live on the Massachusetts beaches in the winter. Some can migrate north to Canada or as far South as Georgia.

Their chicks will follow them right before a lake ices over.

“The ones [in New Hampshire] don’t seem to go very far,” Harrington said.

“But loons don’t always follow the rules. They could go anywhere.”

Benji Rosen can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 228, or brosen@ledgertranscript.com.

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