It's 10 pm on July 16th as we motor into the south end of South Twin Lake. We've left the last of the cabins behind and we are now gliding through silver glass as a full moon rises to the east. We shut down the motor and, after the fumbling of equipment is over, the forested hills are hushed and faint white puffs of steam over the shallows accent the stillness of the air. The stillness is suddenly shattered by a call-- a single, clear, downward note, smooth as though formed by a fine musical instrument. The soloist is a parent coomon loon (Gavia immer) but she is not singing to please an audience. She is staying in contact with her mate, her chick, and, possibly, other loons on neighboring lakes. It seems a violation, on our part, to interrupt the peace with our metallic clinks and bumping around in the boat and, even more so, to slice the night with powerful spotlights and set our sites on capturing these surreal, sleek birds. Fortunately, this disruptive activity is only performed once a year and it is far from careless. Capture techniques were carefully developed and the people I am working with this night handle the birds expertly and respectfully-- they've spent much of their lives caring deeply for loons.
I was joining Darwin Long, Dan Poleschook, and graduate student Alison Byrd in Northeastern Washington state during their annual efforts to capture and band common loons. Dan and his wife Ginger Poleschook are NE Washington residents and have been spear-heading local loon study and conservation efforts for the past two decades along with Darwin Long and several scientists with the BioDiversity Research Institute (BRI; www.briloon.org). Common loons are, well, common in western Washington during the winter time but their breeding range has been shrinking in the western US. At present, only 7 pairs of common loons are known to breed in Washington state and 6 of these are in north-central to northeastern Washington. In most other areas of north America, breeding populations appear to be strong although loons remain sensitive to environmental pressures, particularly in their breeding areas. For breeding, loons require a strong base of various-sized aquatic prey (fish and invertebrates-- depending upon the age of the chicks) and plenty of undisturbed room. Additionally chicks are prone to predation from above (e.g., bald eagles) and below (e.g., large bass in Washington, snapping turtles in some other regions). Finally, toxins, some known (e.g., lead shot and fishing tackle) and many unknown, may kill loons or impair their reproductive success. Annual surveys, banding, and biological sampling (e.g., checking toxin levels in blood and feathers) are critical to ensuring that we are aware of the state of loon populations and the hazards they face, which could ultimately affect other animals in connected food webs including us! Thanks to the efforts of BRI, Dan, Ginger, and many other volunteers and concerned state biologists, loons stand a chance. As an example, a great victory was won in recent years when lead fishing gear was banned on loon breeding lakes (see photo).
Do you want to know more? Do you want to DO more? Check out these organizations or drop me a line:
BioDiversity Research Institute - International Center for Loon Conservation and Research
American Bird Conservancy - Lead
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