Loons hit record number in Vermont; data mixed in N.H.

  • In this July 2007 photo, a loon with a chick on its back makes its way across Pierce Pond near North New Portland, Maine. AP file photos

  • This year has been a record year for loons in Vermont.

  • A loon glides across a body of water in Vermont. The state recorded a record 101 pairs of nesting loons this year. (Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department — Mitch Moraski) Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department — Mitch Moraski

Valley News
Published: 12/10/2019 3:05:49 PM

As humans have encroached on natural habitats and outdated fishing tackle has led to bleak reports of lead poisoning, news about the once-endangered loon population in the Twin States has made the waterbird’s haunting call seem more like a death rattle.

But this year, the loon call is striking a different chord, as 2019 has been an exceptionally good year for loons in Vermont.

The Green Mountain State recorded 101 nesting pairs, which is the highest number on record since officials began keeping count in 1978.

“Awareness,” said Eric Hanson, loon biologist at Norwich-based Vermont Center for Ecostudies, when asked to explain the increase. “We have so many people who just know a little bit about loons, and that respect has really paid off in dividends.”

Of the nesting pairs, 75 produced chicks, for a total of 115 born this year.

The success is particularly gratifying compared to what loons were up against.

“We had a record number of bird nests fail the flooding,” Hanson said, adding that about 13 nests were wiped out by rainstorms in June.

Researchers also recorded four or five new pairs this year.

“They’re looking for open lakes, they’re looking for parts of lakes,” Hanson said. “We’re hoping that having a little more competition will start slowing population growth a little bit. A lot of our lakes are all filled up with birds now. We’re expecting to see slower growth in the future.”

In 1983, there were only seven nesting pairs in the state. And it’s been growing since.

“Since the mid-’90s we’ve gone from 15 to now over 100,” Hanson said.

He noted that the Upper Valley has one particularly good spot for loon canoodling.

“Lake Fairlee has been cranking out chicks for about four years now,” Hanson said, adding that one pair had produced chicks and there were other non-breeding loons spotted on the lake. “They’ve produced chicks every year that they’ve tried. That’s a little unusual. Usually there’s more failure.”

New Hampshire loons

In New Hampshire, a record-high 313 breeding pairs were counted, said John Cooley, senior biologist at the Loon Preservation Committee. Of those breeding pairs, 221 created nests and 193 chicks hatched. As of August, 148 of those chicks survived.

“That’s consistent with the long-term, incremental slow process of New Hampshire’s loon progress,” Cooley said.

However, the number of loon deaths rose. The nonprofit recorded 27 adult loon deaths in 2019, exceeding the average of 17 per year over the last decade. The highest previous loon death toll was 25 in a year.

At least seven adult loons died from ingesting lead tackle this year, Cooley said. Vermont recorded seven adult loon mortalities as well, two of which were attributed to lead poisoning, Hanson said. Those were the first lead tackle deaths Vermont had reported in about five years. Both states have laws that ban various types of lead fishing tackle.

The beloved birds are also facing a new threat in New Hampshire: avian malaria. Three loons died from it in 2019.

“That’s the most we’ve documented. And really we’ve only documented one other case, and that was in 2015,” Cooley said.

One of the deaths included a female loon whose chicks had just hatched.

“This might be new to them,” Cooley said. “We don’t know that. We’re actively researching that.”

He said it’s hard to pinpoint an exact cause for the increase in loon mortality in New Hampshire.​​​

“Certainly the cases of avian malaria are an additional new cause, and then we saw a slight increase in cases where a rival loon is the source of mortality,” Cooley said. “The continued instances of lead mortality also contributed to the record number this year.”

The Loon Preservation Committee, based in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region, continues to monitor the effect that climate change has on the state’s loon population, as well as other stressors that can contribute to their mortality.

“It felt like a year where the New Hampshire loon population as holding its own, barely,” Cooley said. “In a year like this one, 2019, we should have gotten a bumper crop of loon chicks.”

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