How Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation keeps tabs on the park’s population
By Janet Reynolds
For many Adirondack lovers, a lake without the distinctive hoots and wails of a loon is unimaginable. The good news is that the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation is on a mission to ensure that loons are here to stay.
A clearinghouse for all things loon, the center participates in the annual New York Loon Census and also spearheads a variety of research projects aimed at better understanding loon behavior and potential environmental threats. Each year the center hires field staff to monitor about 100 Adirondack lakes.
The center also plays a vital role in rescues. According to Executive Director Dr. Nina Schoch, the center receives virtually all calls for help with distressed loons. While many of the calls are from people concerned about what turns out to be normal behavior, the number of rescues is increasing. “In the late ‘90s we would only have 1-2 a year. This past year it was up to 13,” says Schoch, a wildlife veterinarian and biologist. “Some were rescues and some were recoveries. For the recoveries, we send them to a lab to see what killed them.”
Overall, fishing-related rescues have increased from 1-2 to 4-6 a year, according to Schoch, who has studied Adirondack loons since 1998. That more birds are getting tangled in fishing lines or poisoned by lead fishing tackle is not surprising given the increased use of the park’s waterways. Curious humans who get too close to nests can force the birds to abandon them, negatively impacting reproduction. Boat strikes are another potential loon risk.
Climate change is another reason increasing numbers of loons require rescue. Warmer winters are affecting migration behavior so that loons can get “iced in” on lakes or even on puddles in the road. (Unlike ducks and geese, loons cannot walk easily due to their frog-like legs and feet. Their femurs are literally inside their bodies. Landing on roads or iced-over ponds, then, renders them virtually helpless.) “It used to ice up in December and now it doesn’t happen until January or February,” Schoch says, noting that loons are essentially flightless for a month as they molt their flight feathers. “Loons are molting at the same time but not migrating when they should. We’re seeing more winter rescues now.”
While the protocols vary depending on the issue, rescues often start with a digital photo. “That helps us decide what we’re dealing with,” Schoch says. A recent call in the summer, for instance, sounded like it might just be a juvenile at rest. The photo, however, revealed that a lure was between its feet. “It was handcuffed behind its back,” Schoch says. With direction from center experts, the people reporting the loon caught it and a field staff person in the area helped remove the lure. After that, Schoch treated the bird, banded it and it was released.
Night rescues require more people and a slightly different approach, Schoch says. Someone drives the boat while another shines the light into the bird’s eyes after it is lured close to the boat via loon calls. Another person then snares the bird with a net. “We bring them to shore and I evaluate them,” Schoch says. Some get antibiotics and fluids. Severely debilitated birds are placed in a bathtub to make sure they can swim. Birds that are not doing well are sent for further rehabilitation to a wildlife clinic at Cornell for further evaluation and care.
Thanks to new funding, the center has plans to enhance its rescue services in the park by establishing a loon rehab center at the SUNY ESF campus in Newcomb. The funding will also enable the center to create three trained rescue teams situated throughout the park to help with rescues. Loons requiring additional care would then be sent to Newcomb for care.
If you see a loon you think might be in distress, try to get a picture. Then contact the center at email@example.com or call (518) 354- 8636