Lassoing lost loons

Not exactly, but it makes for a good headline…

Loons, aka Great Northern Divers, spend their summers on largish lakes like ours in Maine. There they breed, and solicitously proffer minute fish to their chicks:

Photo by Moira Yip

But the lakes freeze in the winter, and the ice is much too thick for them to break through to reach the fish.

Photo by Heinrich Wurm

So they migrate either south, or to the coast. But sometimes the inexperienced young, or the old and sick, leave it too late, and get stranded. They have heavy bones that help them to dive deep, so they can need as much as 1/4 mile of open water as a takeoff runway. This one tried, but never got airborne.

Photo by Heinrich Wurm

Five juveniles found themselves marooned in steadily shrinking pools on our lake last week. What to do? Call Paw Patrol? Bad idea. Rescuing the loons takes planning, expertise, and courage. Getting close will mean venturing onto thin ice, and well-intentioned people put their lives in jeopardy if they don’t understand the risks. Call the experts, don’t do this yourself.

The heroes of this hour were close to home. Heinrich Wurm was on the shore when he heard the loons calling out while hopeful bald eagles were circling overhead; Laura Robinson coaxed the troops into action and contacted Lee Attix our local loon expert and mentor.  The actual rescuers were Bill Hanson,  Lucas Savoy and Chris Persico of Biodiversity Research Institute; Diane Winn from Avian Haven of Freedom, Maine (very appropriate) made sure the birds were healthy before being released to the Atlantic.

They use a 300′ seine (or gill?) net, and dip nets, and they have rafts on the ice to transport the loons, and if necessary for the humans to hold onto. Here they are with the seine/gill net, which they can use to move the loon out of the water and onto thicker ice so they can get closer:

Photo by Laura Robinson

Then the dip net is brought out:

Photo by Laura Robinson

and maneuvered into position:

Photo by Laura Robinson

Finally, success:

Photo by Laura Robinson

The birds are then taken to the lab, where they are examined, weighed, measured, photographed, and banded. Notice the more subdued winter plumage, compared to their dapper black-and-white summer breeding plumage:

Photo by Laura Robinson

They were then triumphantly released on the coast, where they are supposed to be at this time of year!

PS I played no role in this expedition, and can take no credit whatsoever. The photographs in this piece were taken by Laura Robinson and Heinrich Wurm. The rescue team on the ice was made up of Bill Hanson, Chris Persico and Lucas Savoy, backed up by a big team of professionals and volunteers. Well done everyone.

9 thoughts on “Lassoing lost loons”

  1. A memorable and – hopefully unique – success story. Late migrating juveniles stopping over in the northerly wind swept open waters of Kezar Lake’s upper bay on their way to the ocean, detected only when Bald Eagles made them to call out. One more night of single figure (F) temperatures, a positive response from a dream team of rescuers, a relatively mild and windless day and the unexpected realization that there were actually 5 birds to be rescued anf finally, just enough daylight to get it all done in 6 hours time. Not to forget a team of unsung heroes transporting and caring for the birds! Sometimes we ask ourselves: why loons? A year spent with them affords the answer: Fidelity, beauty, vulnerability, mystery , spirited passion – few – no no other bird elicits more unique sensations among so many of us! Thanks, Moira, for dedicating your blog to this unique event.


  2. Thank you for this one! I spent a good bit of time, weeks at a time, wilderness canoeing in northern Ontario, south of Hudson Bay in my 30’s. The Lonely Land, Sigurd Olsen called it, rugged and exquisite. The home of loons. When I think of that time and that landscape, I hear their calls.


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