Lake Escapes: For Loons on Squam Lake, 'location, location, location'

Last modified: 7/21/2014 12:12:48 AM
The sleek, black heads tipped with long beaks bob above the water’s surface.

“There,” a woman says excitedly, pointing several hundred feet to the left. “At 11:30!”

All 18 passengers aboard the pontoon boat quickly pull their binoculars to their eyes.

Through the lenses, it looks like a pack of four friendly loons, swimming together along a wooded island in the middle of Squam Lake.

But that is the scene witnessed by an untrained eye. Tiffany Grade, a loon biologist and leader of the cruise, sees trouble. The birds are squaring off in a territory dispute and one pair is actually escorting the other off their property. “They are still trying to sort out that boundary line,” she says, peering through her own binoculars.

Grade sees the invisible property lines that divide Squam Lake into loon neighborhoods and that are often a cause of strife among the birds. “It’s all about location, location, location for loons,” she says.

And Grade knows each bird, its history, how together they form Squam’s fragile loon population.

Each Monday and Friday during the summer, Grade introduces people to Squam’s loons on an afternoon tour run by the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center. During the two-hour boat ride that departs from Holderness, Grade

introduces the tour group to dozens of birds, explains their behavior and outlines the myriad problems Squam’s loons face.

“It’s a soap opera out there,” she tells the tour group. “I like to call it, ‘As Squam Turns.’ ”

The drama stems from a unique situation facing the lake’s loons.

The Loon Preservation Committee, where Grade works as Squam Lake project biologist, has focused on Squam over the past few years. In 2004, the bird population was healthy. Then, the lake supported 16 nesting loon pairs. But in 2005 the population took a nose dive. Only nine pairs returned to the lake for nesting season. “It is the largest drop we ever saw,” Grade told the tour. “And it was followed by several years of reproductive failure.”

In 2007, only one loon chick survived on the lake. That was when the LPC launched the Squam Lake Loon Initiative. The society started investigating and found high amounts of contaminants in the eggs, including flame retardants, DDT and PCBs that it thinks are in part making the eggs non-viable. “It’s much higher levels than all the other eggs in the state,” Grade said.

On top of that, when the adult birds swallow lead fishing tackle – a problem just recently addressed in the state Legislature – they will die in two to four weeks of lead poisoning. When established birds die, their territories are up for grabs, and this has led to boundary battles across the lake. That puts chicks in the crossfire; they are usually casualties of the territory takeovers.

All of that combined to bring Squam’s loon population to a breaking point, and ultimately pushed the birds over the edge, Grade said. The LPC works to preserve and rehabilitate the population while studying what happens when a vulnerable loon population is trying to recover.

“Squam is our laboratory,” Grade told the tour.

One of the ways the LPC tries to help the population is by putting out floating nest rafts, where the birds can lay their eggs. Loons like to nest at the shore’s edge, since they are not adapted to walk well, but that placement makes the nests vulnerable to weather and rising water.

During the tour, Grade stopped a few hundred feet from one of the floating nests, which looks like a wicker basket. A mother loon sat beneath the bright sun on top of her eggs, which can reach about 5 inches long each.

Grade explained the history of the pair, this female had become mates with the male about six years ago. The pair had several successful breeding years using one of LPC’s nest rafts, but last year an animal swam out to the float and snatched their eggs. Since then, Grade said, the loon pair swore off that nesting site and tried several others, including a partially submerged dock that stuck out of the water at a nearly vertical angle. They all failed.

This year, LPC put out a new nest raft that the loons quickly took over. Then, Grade broke the bad news. The pair’s eggs – that incubate for 28 days – were supposed to hatch two weeks ago. “We are getting beyond the point of hope with this pair,” Grade said.

“Why is her mouth open?” asked one tour-goer. The female loon is panting because she’s hot, Grade said. Loons on Squam are at the southern edge of their range, which means they prefer colder weather and are susceptible to changes in temperature. If the birds get too hot sitting on the nests, they have to dive underwater to cool off, which leaves the eggs vulnerable, Grade said. “They are going to have real problems with climate change,” she told the tour. “Loons are at the top of the food chain, they are the canaries in the coal mine that tell us how the entire ecosystem is doing.”

Across the lake, Grade directed the boat to another cove, this one home to a more successful pair. The mother loon swam in shallow water with her two, fluffy chicks. They hatched a few weeks ago, the first on the lake. Every few seconds, the mother loon dove beneath the surface, bringing up minnows that she carefully passed off to her 2-week-old hatchlings. One of the babies botched the handoff, dropping the squirming fish back into the water. “They have endless patience,” Grade said. Over the whole season, the family will eat roughly 900 pounds of fish.

The boat finally turned away from the baby loons to seek a different bunch of chicks: the three bald eagles babies. Those eagle pair has been nesting on Squam since 2003. This year’s three chicks are almost ready to fly, and have gotten so big at this point they barely fit in the 5-foot nest, Grade explained.

On the way back into the dock, Grade demonstrated several loon calls ranging from one low, short noise loons use to chat as a family to a repetitive hooting, that pairs sometimes use to find each other.

“I think they are fascinating, different than any kind of bird,” said Susan Lowe, from Connecticut, who went on the cruise. She has been coming to Squam for years and each year tries to go on at least one loon cruise with the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center.

“There’s always something new to learn,” she said. “I love to watch them, see the chicks floating around, and I hate when I hear something bad.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at

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