After more than 40 years, loons are making a comeback in N.H.

  • Bridget Re and Harry Vogel of the Loon Preservation Committee look on as a loon swims past last week on Lake Winnipesaukee.

  • A loon swims in front of a Loon Preservation Committee whaler last week on Lake Winnipesaukee. Jake Sheridan / Monitor staff

  • A loon drifts on Lake winnipesaukee on Thursday, July 11th, 2019. —Jake Sheridan

  • Loons participate in a circle dance, a ritual in which they size each other up and occasionally battle for territory, last week on Lake Winnipesaukee. Jake Sheridan photos / Monitor staff

  • The Loon Preservation Committee's whaler docked on Lake Winnipesaukee on Thursday, July 11th, 2019. —Jake Sheridan

Monitor staff
Published: 7/18/2019 5:47:27 PM

Five loons glided around one another in a northern corner of Lake Winnipesaukee, taking turns dipping their midnight black heads into the water. Nearby, boulders pierced the water’s surface as mountains loomed in the distance. It looked peaceful. It wasn’t.

Below, another unseen loon – a rival – posed a threat in this area, which is a common meeting place for different packs of these iconic fowl.

“So, they’re waiting to see if he’s swimming around down there trying to stab them,” Harry Vogel, executive director of the Loon Preservation Committee, said, pointing at the birds from inside a worn, plastic-shelled whaler.

“When they’re doing this circle dancing, they typically have that very rounded or crested head,” said biologist Bridget Re, who was piloting the vessel. “You can tell they’re a little agitated.”

Circle dances, in which loons size one another up and occasionally battle for territory, are common where the boat was – a strait dividing the territory of two separate groups of loons dubbed by Re as “the Crossroads.” But usually only three birds come to the party. On this fresh Thursday morning, five loons showed up. Re and Vogel held their breath and waited to see if a fight was about to break out.

The territorial battles, however, are not the biggest threat to loons. That title belongs to lead tackle, a demon Vogel and his team at the preservation committee are doing everything they can to rid from New Hampshire freshwater. Lead poisoning from ingested fish tackle has accounted for 44% of all documented adult loon deaths over the last 30 years. Vogel and other volunteers have been trying to rid the state of lead fishing gear for years, and now it’s ramped up the fight with a new lead buyback program. It’s worthwhile for Vogel, who, after 21 years with the committee, is at home on the boat, and in heaven when there’s a loon in sight.

“These are impressive birds,” said Vogel, who couldn’t help but geek out describing the birds at the boat’s starboard side. “A big male in New England can get up to 15 or 16 pounds in size. They have this striking black plumage and this blood red eye.”

Then there’s the call, which Vogel’s favorite loon quote describes as “a chorus from all of the devils in hell.”

“You gotta love that,” Vogel said. “You’re not likely to forget it or the bird that made it. They’ve captured our imagination for the longest time. There’s something mysterious about these birds. They’re there, then they dive. What’re they doing down there? There’s something unknowable.”

Absent from Vogel’s description of the beloved bird were teeth. Loons don’t have them. That leads to lead death.

“If you’re a flying bird, the last thing you want is a bunch of heavy calcium objects right at the front of your center of gravity,” Vogel said, explaining that evolution has given loons a lightweight keratin beak. The birds swallow little pebbles then grind unchewed food in their gizzards to digest.

“That has served loons well,” Vogel said. “It’s only in the last 200 years that they’ve gotten into trouble as we begin to add these little split shot lead sinkers.”

Loons swallow lead tackle left on lake bottoms, lead diffuses in their stomach during digestion and lead poisoning kills them. Any loon – old or young, smart or not – can fatally pick the wrong pebble. Because just a small number of loons that are experienced in parenting account for the majority of successfully fledged chicks, lead tackle’s indiscretion makes it all the more dangerous.

“That’s one of the things that makes lead poisoning so detrimental,” Vogel said. “Lead can out an experienced bird. Once you’ve taken out a bird that has reached its prime, that is putting out two chicks, two chicks, two chicks a year ... it cuts off that cycle that we want to preserve at all costs.”

The preservation committee has fought hard to preserve that pattern and free New Hampshire of small lead tackle. It pushed for legislation that banned the sale and use of the tackle, which passed and went into effect in 2016. But that wasn’t enough according to Vogel. Ten of the birds, which Re pointed out are an indicator species, meaning their condition reflects the health of their ecosystem, died from lead poisoning in 2018. Three have followed suit so far this year. It’s not old lead that’s killing the birds – the dense tackle tends to sink into muddy lake floors where loons can’t swallow it over time. Lead tackle is still being used illegally, Vogel said, and it’s killing birds.

“That’s actually a good thing because if we can stop people from using tackle there should be an immediate benefit to our loon population. That’s what lead tackle buyback is about, giving people an incentive to bring that tackle in ... we’re sick of picking up dead birds.”

Anyone who brings in one ounce or more of restricted lead fishing tackle, including the dangerous lead sinkers and lead headed jigs one ounce or less in size, is eligible for a $10 voucher that can be used to buy new, non-toxic tackle, Vogel explained. Two retailers participated in the buyback pilot program last year. They hauled in 4,700 pieces of lead tackle. Twelve tackle shops are participating this year.

From the boat’s wooden pews, Vogel used binoculars to follow the dancing loons. Wings flapped with increasing aggression. The birds took turns diving down, maybe looking for their chance to pierce the breastplate of another and claim dominance.

“This is a sign of progress,” Vogel said. “If we have enough birds here that there’s actually doing some jockeying for territory, while that can be detrimental to any given pair as they’re trying to incubate their eggs and hatch their eggs, it means we’re growing our population.”

There are now more than 300 pairs of loons in New Hampshire, three times more than there were when the committee began in 1975, but still half the historical level. Last year, Granite State loons fledged 160 chicks.

“That’s enough to maintain the population. It’s even enough to grow it slightly,” Vogel said. “But one thing we found is once you lose loons from the area, it’s a long slow slog to get them back.”

The dancing loons slowed down and drifted together for a moment. One pair left, then a single loon did. Another pair stayed back and safely skidded across the lake’s surface together.

Details about the lead buyback program can be found at Loon Appreciation Day is Saturday, July 20, when the Loon Preservation Committee will hold its loon census from 8 to 9 a.m. and hold a Loon Festival at its headquarters in Moultonborough afterward.

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