Local conservationists rescue stranded loon

  • “Late Summer Loon,” a photograph by Sarah Cail

  • Field biologist Mary Caffrey with a stranded loon she helped to rescue from Nubanusit Brook on July 14, 2021. Courtesy image—

  • Brett Amy Thelen with a rescued loon on July 14, 2021. Courtesy image—

  • Brett Amy Thelen with a rescued loon on July 14, 2021. Courtesy image—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 7/28/2021 3:17:54 PM

A male loon on Skatutakee Lake has rejoined his mate and chick after a harrowing three-day rescue conducted by local biologists and conservationists after it washed over a dam earlier in July.

Loon Preservation Committee field biologist Mary Caffrey was driving home on July 14 when she received a flurry of calls and emails about a loon that had been spotted in the river on the low side of the Skatutakee Lake dam in Harrisville. That’s a problem, Caffrey said, since loons can’t walk on land and need a decent “runway” to build up speed before taking off into the air. Simply put, the loon was trapped without enough space to get airborne on the narrow Nubanusit Brook, she said.

Harris Center Science Director Brett Amy Thelen was first on the scene and watched the loon make multiple attempts to swim upstream, but the current had pushed the exhausted bird downstream and out of sight by the time Caffrey joined Thelen, Thelen’s husband, Russ, and another Loon Preservation Committee biologist on the scene.

The prognosis was grim: “They’re not really built for rivers,” Caffrey said, and the current was too rough for the foursome to safely wade in to rescue it, even if they managed to find it. They called off the search after a fruitless hour, knowing that the loon might have already died in the violent water, she said.

The next morning, Thelen and her husband returned to make one last attempt at finding the bird. “While they were out in the woods walking by the river, they heard it call,” Caffrey said. The loon had beached itself on the side of the river, she said, something loons usually only do when they’re sick or injured. They summoned Caffrey, who brought the big net she keeps in her car for rescues. “It was literally in the middle of the woods,” Caffrey said, about a half mile from the nearest trail.

A word of caution here: handling a loon can be dangerous for both the loon and any humans involved. The parties involved in this rescue were all trained professionals.

The plan was to sneak up behind the exhausted loon and grab it with a towel, Caffrey said, but she gave her net to Russ in case it tried to escape back into the river, to an uncertain fate. That wound up being a good call: “The bird immediately washed back into the river,” Caffrey said. “Russ did a really good job, he got it,” she said, and walked it back to the shore where Caffrey wrapped it in a towel before carrying it back to the car.

They put the loon in the box with some ice (“You have to keep them cool,” Caffrey said) and brought it to rehabilitator Maria Colby in Henniker, who tested its blood levels for lead and ultimately cleared it the next day for reintroduction on Skatautakee Lake, where its mate had been caring for their two chicks singlehandedly. “Or, -wingedly,” Caffrey said.

The biologists watched and waited. The male appeared disengaged, Caffrey said. “It didn’t want to do much with its mate and two chicks,” she said, and the watchers wondered whether he’d sustained a head injury on the river.

Meanwhile, a different kind of trouble was brewing. While Caffrey watched, one chick forced the other out of the nest. It’s not uncommon for one chick to outcompete another, Caffrey said. Adult loons usually let nature take its course in those situations, which frequently results in the outcast chick starving or getting attacked, she. In this particular situation, Caffrey and her colleagues determined the best course of action would be to bring the outcast chick to a rehabilitator, which might give it better odds of survival.

A couple days after that incident, Thelen observed the male resume his care duties for the remaining chick, Caffrey said. It’s still a mystery why the loon went over the dam in the first place, she said, but there had been a lot of rain right before the incident, and the bird might have underestimated the current, she said.

“Loons are very long-lived birds and that every time we can save one it can have very long term benefits for the species as a whole,” Caffrey said. Even though loon biologists like Caffrey carry nets and boxes in their car for potential rescues, this one was a pretty unusual situation, Caffrey said. It’s far more common for a chick to get separated from its parents by a boat, or to develop neurological problems due to ingesting lead fishing lures, she said.

The lead issue is a major one: 42 percent of adult loon deaths in New Hampshire are due to lead poisoning, Caffrey said. Loons snap up lead sinkers and jigs trailing from fishing lines, which lodge in their gizzard, where acids and rocks break it down until it’s absorbed into their bloodstream, she said. In a recent case, a lure was surgically removed from a loon’s gizzard before its blood lead levels got incurably toxic, Caffrey said.

Lead tackle is no longer for sale in New Hampshire, and the state supports a buyback program where anglers can exchange banned lead tackle for $10 vouchers to participating tackle shops, according to the Loon Preservation Committee’s website, loon.org.

In 2020, volunteers counted 481 adult loons, four immature loons, and 83 loon chicks during the Loon Preservation Committee’s annual statewide census. If you spot a loon in distress, call the Loon Preservation Committee or Fish and  Game.

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

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