BANGOR, Maine — In the Pine Tree State, the mournful call of the loon is common, but it can still be counted among our brief summer’s sweetest gifts. But in the rest of the Northeast, those calls are much more rare.
The Portland-based Biodiversity Research Institute and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife are working to change that, one loon chick at a time.
The wildlife department announced last week that it has joined forces with Biodiversity Research Institute in that organization’s “Restore the Call” program, which is relocating loon chicks from states that have plenty of the birds to states that don’t.
This summer, Maine will donate as many as 10 older loon chicks — those that are more than 6 weeks old — that will be moved to a lake in southeastern Massachusetts. New York also is contributing loons to the project.
Danielle D’Auria, a Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist who works with loons, said Maine has the largest loon population in the Northeast, so the state’s participation makes sense.
“We are pretty much the stronghold for the Northeast, so therefore we kind of have a high responsibility for our loons,” D’Auria said. “We probably have 72 to 75 percent of the territorial pairs in the Northeast, including New York.”
Breaking those numbers down a bit more, D’Auria said about 1,700 territorial pairs of loons live in Maine’s lakes and ponds. New Hampshire, Vermont and New York have between 250 and 300 pairs apiece.
In Massachusetts, there are just 45 territorial pairs of the large water birds.
“It’s not like we have too many [loons] and we’re wanting to give them away,” D’Auria said. “It’s more that we have a pretty robust population, and in the big scheme of things, taking up to 10 chicks — they’re not even sure they’re really going to take 10 chicks from Maine — in one year, shouldn’t really have an impact.”
David Evers, the founder of Biodiversity Research Institute and a national loon expert, has been studying the birds and mounting restoration efforts for 25 years. He said because of habitat loss and hunting, loons had essentially been extirpated from Massachusetts by 1900, and they didn’t begin to reappear until 1975. The birds are long-lived but slow to colonize.
“I think we need to watch [various] species as monitors of what goes on around us. They do indicate the health of the system around us,” Evers said. “And loons are great indicators that way. They live long, and if something goes wrong, they’re up on the upper part of the food web and they feel it first.”
The research institute also is reintroducing loons in Minnesota and Wyoming, Evers said.
“We’re in our third year [in Minnesota], we’ve translocated 15 chicks, and it’s gone well,” Evers said. “In Massachusetts, last year was our first year to bring loons down from New York. That went well in an area that was part of their former breeding range in Massachusetts. We needed another state to kind of chip in with loon chicks, and that’s why we have Maine this year.”
D’Auria said that Biodiversity Research Institute will handle the field work and take the loons to their new homes.
According to the research institute’s website, in 2013 the Ricketts Conservation Foundation awarded Biodiversity Research Institute a $6.5 million grant to support this five-year project that aims to strengthen and restore loon populations within their existing and traditional range.
This is the first year that Maine is donating loon chicks to the project, according to D’Auria.
The wildlife biologist said that the chicks the research institute hopes to take from Maine will be captured in August. Those chicks will hopefully be taken from two-chick broods, with one chick remaining with its parents in Maine.
“A lot of times, when loons have two chicks, one dominates over the other, and that one that’s subordinate will not do as well and will sometimes perish,” D’Auria said. “If [researchers find] a two-chick brood they are looking to take that dominant chick, most likely. It will be the most likely to survive a translocation and fledge successfully on a different lake. That one that’s left behind will hopefully flourish, because it doesn’t have to compete any more with the sibling.”
Lakes in the southern and western part of Maine will be targeted for loon recruitment for the study, he said.
The reason: The loons will be captured after dark, and Biodiversity Research Institute wants to be able to deliver the chicks to Massachusetts before sunrise the next morning.
“They do something called night-lighting,” D’Auria said, explaining the capture method. “They’re going out at night, in the dark, and using spotlights and loon calls to try to attract loons to a boat where they have a spotlight that’s shined in the loon’s eyes. It kind of confuses them and will sometimes separate the chicks from the adults.”
At that point, the researchers will catch a chick with a long-handled net. A brief physical examination will follow, and the loon may or may not be kept and taken to Massachusetts.
“[In Massachusetts] there’s a fenced-in pen where they’ve got blinds that the people can hide behind to provide food through a little chute that goes into the water,” D’Auria said. “The loons can see the lake itself, but there’s no human contact. They’ll be there for several weeks until they’re ready to fly and fledge, and then they’ll open up the gates and let [the loons] be released onto the pond.”
Several weeks later, the loons will move to the coast for the winter.
“Loons don’t reach maturity for four or five years, for breeding, so then it’s kind of a waiting game for the next four or five years, at least, to see if those loons that were released come back to either that pond or a nearby pond,” D’Auria said. “[Biodiversity Research Institute] will be monitoring all of the nearby ponds, and the loons will be marked with color bands so they can be recognized.”