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Loon program revisits an old friend

July 25, 2018
By JUSTIN A. LEVINE - Outdoors Writer ( , Lake Placid News

SARANAC LAKE - The Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation has been in the field, trapping and tagging loons for 20 years. And this summer, a pleasant surprise took place when staff recaptured the very first loon that was banded.

The loon - number 0898-09017 - was first banded as an adult on Little Clear Pond in 1998, and the loon program has a full history of where she's lived since. Program head Nina Schoch said loons don't develop their adult plumage until they're about 3- or 4-years-old, and that the program only tags adult or large juveniles. This means the loon in question is at least 23 years old, but could be older.

The loon lived on Little Clear Pond in 1998 and 1999 and 2001. It was not observed in 2000, 2002 or 2003, but was observed and fledged two chicks on Upper St. Regis Lake in 2004. Since then, the loon has hatched and reared at least 11 more chicks on Upper St. Regis. This year, the loon is mated with another banded male, and has been seen with one chick.

Article Photos

Nina Schoch, left, holds a loon that had just been rescued from the ice in December 2016 on Follensby Clear Pond.
News file photo — Justin A. Levine

"She's raised chicks some years and some years she hasn't," Schoch said over the phone this week. Schoch said loons can live between 20 and 30 years, and that an average loon is likely to fledge about 15 to 20 chicks over their lifetime. She added that, for a wide number of reasons, eggs may not hatch or chicks may not survive.

This is due to environmental factors such as water levels, as well as predation from raccoons, eagles, coyotes or even bears, which is documented on the program's game cameras. She said humans can also play a role in nest failure.

"We've also had human disturbance," she said. "People get too close sometimes. Some birds are stickers - they'll stick to the nest. But others will splash away. If they get disturbed too often, then the eggs won't be viable.

"We've had people come in and actually break eggs. We've documented that, which is totally illegal. They're federally protected, so things like that get reported to the ECOs (Environmental Conservation Officers)."

The loon program captures loons each summer, and either adds leg tags or records the type of tags the bird has. The tags are metal bands that are loosely crimped around the birds' leg, which is why small juveniles are not tagged, because they may out grow the tags.

But it's not just leg tags that are the point of the capture, as Schoch explains.

"We take measurements of their bill and their legs, and weigh them," she said. "All of that information helps us determine if it's a male or female. We draw a blood sample to look for mercury levels and do a health assessment on them and then look at their immune function.

"We also take a feather sample, and that tells us about long-term mercury accumulation. The blood sample tells us about how much mercury they've eaten in the last month or so."

Schoch said the program has banded more than 350 loons, and captured more than 500. The captured birds may already be banded or they may be too small to be banded.

Schoch said loon number 0898-09017 has been captured twice, and her weight hasn't changed much, adding that her blood mercury levels have been low.

There are several years where the loon wasn't sighted, but Schoch said that was likely because volunteers or field staff just weren't able to see the leg bands, which can be difficult to spot.

"Sometimes we don't always see the leg bands," she said. "I've gone a whole summer sometimes where I haven't seen the bands or the legs of bird, and it's really frustrating. So I'm sure she was still out there those years, we just didn't know for sure."

Schoch said that sometimes loons will move from one lake to another, much like this loon moved from Little Clear Pond to Upper St. Regis. She added that there is a fair amount of marital drama among the Adirondack loon population.

"One thing we found out through the banding field work is that they do occasionally switch mates," Schoch said. "Usually it's because a new bird comes in and fights to take over the territory.

"One year I had both members of a pair banded. And then the next year, an unbanded pair came in and took over that territory. And then the following year, the unbanded female was gone and the banded female was back on that territory with the unbanded male. And the banded male was over on a different lake."

Schoch said that over 20 years, her and the staff and volunteers really take a personal interest in the lives of the loons they watch.

"You just get to know the individual birds over time, because it's the same bird year after year," she said. "They have personalities ... there have been records of people who [Adirondack field staff and others in New Hampshire] are out with the same loons every day, and the birds get to know them. And the birds will even drop the kids off to babysit."

To learn more about the loon program, including how to volunteer, go to



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