Crisis on the Oswegatchie
For my wife and me, Wanakena has become synonymous with relaxation, quiet reflection and family over the last 20 years. It is a place where we raised our children to love the outdoors. It has been a sanctuary from the day-to-day grind. It has been a gift.
Last summer, we set out from our home near Rochester for our week-long stay at the family cottage on the Oswegatchie River. In the past, packing two children, bikes, canoes, clothes, books, computers, dogs and all the unnecessary stuff that goes along with family vacations consumed the days leading up to, and finally, the day of our journey. But this year it was just the two of us. We intentionally took only a single duffle bag each and hit the road.
Wanakena, as usual, did not disappoint—even when the clouds opened up and the rains “forced” us to sit still. We spent the week reading, reflecting and talking about how our life might change with the impending arrival of our first grandchild, due in two weeks. I periodically searched for cell-phone service so we could check in and make sure the birth hadn’t happened in our absence.
It usually takes about three days for me to unwind. By the fourth day I don’t care about what’s happening in the stock market, in the sports world or the political universe. I immerse myself so completely in mountain life that the pine smells and nighttime sounds overtake everything else. It is bittersweet when the last morning at camp comes.
The last night of our vacation I set my alarm for 6 a.m. so I could hike with my camera one last time. Outdoor photography is my passion, and the proximity of our cabin to the Five Ponds Wilderness Area supplies never-ending beauty. At 6:15 I began the trail to High Falls, leisurely photographing dew-laden spider webs and fog on the ponds.
Midmorning I started back, anticipating breakfast on the deck. I could see our cottage jutting out into the Oswegatchie when a light-colored object in the water caught my eye. I thought it was a Canada goose. But the bird was acting strangely. With a zoom lens I snapped photo after photo, enlarging them on the camera’s LCD. I saw that it was a loon, and I could see why it was behaving so peculiarly. The bird’s head and upper body were entangled in fishing line. It was trying, unsuccessfully, to free itself from the filament.
I saw a couple walking down the road in my direction. With camera in hand and image enlarged, I told them what I had discovered.
My new friends were as concerned as I was that this beautiful creature might die if something wasn’t done immediately. We discussed contacting a forest ranger, but didn’t think a ranger would make it in time. They said they’d get a boat and try to catch the tangled bird. I went back to my cottage to get my kayak and help with the plan.
My kayak was awkward. I could maneuver within 10 feet of the bird, but anything closer caused it to dive under the kayak, re-emerging 20 feet away. After three failed attempts I gave up as the loon swam away, east down the river. Discouraged, I paddled back to shore.
As I pondered my failure, I saw my fellow loon rescuers emerge from around the bend of the river. They paddled toward me in their canoe. I yelled that the bird was headed in their direction. They called to a kayaker across the narrows of the river; the two vessels began to converge on the loon. They directed it into a small alcove while the bird kept a measured distance from them. As they began their final approach, the bird dove. But just as it did, the man in the canoe pulled a fishing net from the boat and plunged it downward. The loon swam directly into the net. The canoeists gently pulled their catch from the water and paddled toward the community dock.
By the time I reached the dock the Samaritan in the kayak had pulled surgical scissors and forceps from his tackle box. My two new friends quickly cut away the entanglement of fishing filament while the loon lay motionless. When they were finished, they gently lowered the bird to the water. With surprising speed, the loon dove into the depths of the Oswegatchie, eventually resurfacing 25 feet away.
As my wife and I packed our car to begin our trek back to civilization, the loon floated in the water in front of our cabin. It must have been exhausted and, perhaps, malnourished. It could have been entangled for some time. Its presence felt like a thank you.
Jeopardy on Jabe Pond
by Nina Schoch & Ellie George
We’ve been on more Adirondack lakes and ponds at night than during the day. Each summer we catch loons for our research on how environmental mercury pollution affects the Adirondack loon population and the bodies of water where they live. We’ve handled hundreds of Adirondack loons since 1998, taking blood and feather samples, banding and measuring them, plus conducting observations to learn more about their behavior and ecology.
Catching and processing loons has also been extremely helpful, as we are often called on to rescue a bird that is injured, iced-in or entangled in fishing line. One June evening in 2016, we received such a call—about a loon on Jabe Pond, just west of Silver Bay, that had fishing line wrapped around its head. During the summer our field staff monitors loons throughout the Adirondack Park. Ellie was the staff member who was closest to the pond.
Early the next morning, Ellie paddled Jabe and found several loons, one of which was off by itself. She discovered the worst case of fishing line entanglement we have ever dealt with: the loon had line wrapped around its bill and legs, with a couple of hooks and a sinker visible. The poor loon could only dive for a few seconds before it had to surface, so it was unable to feed itself. It continually picked at the line with its bill, which caused even more tangles. To make matters worse, an immature bald eagle was making dives at the loon, so Ellie stayed near the debilitated bird to protect it until the eagle flew away.
Based on the photos, we knew we had to organize a capture attempt for that evening. Our federal and state permits enable us to use spotlights and playback calls to catch loons at night, as it is easiest to catch them in the dark when they can’t see our boat coming. As the loon approaches the boat in response to the hoot or chick calls, it is scooped into a large net and brought into the boat for processing.
That night Gary Lee, our longtime loon netter; Jessie Tutterow, a member of our field staff; and Nina climbed into a canoe and searched Jabe Pond for the unfortunate bird. It was a chilly but peaceful summer night—a beautiful time to be on the water. We came across another pair of loons, who swam away and tremoloed as we passed. Our spotlight illuminated a great blue heron sitting on a branch. After searching the entire pond with no luck, we circled back toward the launch. There, in the shadows along the shoreline, we finally spotted the tangled bird.
It was obvious that the loon didn’t have a lot of energy. It just drifted along, not attempting to move away as we approached. While Jessie focused the spotlight on the bird and Nina maneuvered the canoe with the electric motor, Gary deftly netted the loon and lifted it into the canoe. We quickly removed the loon from the net and moved to shore.
Gary held the loon—a small female—while Nina worked on removing the line tightly wrapped around the loon’s beak, head, neck, wing and leg, as well as the two hooks, one of which was deeply embedded in its leg. Finally, after what seemed like hours, but was actually just a few minutes, the bird was free of all the line and hooks. Nina treated the loon’s wounds and gave her some subcutaneous fluids. A sinker was attached to the line we removed, but, fortunately, it was a nontoxic one and not a lead one. If she had swallowed a second sinker, it wouldn’t cause her to die from lead poisoning.
It was a tough call—whether to release her or send her to a wildlife rehabilitator for further care. However, since loons are easily stressed in rehabilitation and are highly susceptible to deteriorating from secondary problems such as aspergillosis, a fungal infection of the respiratory system, Nina decided to release her. If she deteriorated, we could catch her again and send her to a rehabilitation facility. On her right leg we placed a metal USGS band so she could be identified if someone came across her again. We carried her back to the water’s edge and watched her drift slowly away.
A year later, on the evening of July 16, 2017, Ellie reported that on Jabe Pond she watched a pair of loons who greeted her in the bay by the boat launch. She heard loud splashing in the middle of the pond near the islands. A loon chase was underway, with one loon racing after the other. The pursuer was using his wings as oars—a motion called wing rowing. The chase finally ended with the losing male swimming toward the boat launch bay, and the victorious male—the territorial male on the pond—giving a yodel call and swimming toward the south end of the pond. He preened to put his feathers back in order after the chase, and Ellie could see that both of his legs were unbanded.
Then, through her binoculars, Ellie saw another loon at the far south end near the marsh. The loon was in very shallow water and would dive and reappear frequently. Ellie paddled toward it. As she got closer, she saw something small and dark gray floating on the water while the loon was submerged. Chicks? Yes!
There were two young chicks, likely three to four-days old, floating on the water, waiting for the mom to surface with food. When she emerged, the chicks made little wheezy begging calls and swam toward her. Ellie watched the female loon feed the chicks a variety of aquatic insect larvae, tiny fish, and small crayfish. During this time, another loon pair she had first seen in the boat launch bay took flight, and the territorial male yodeled at them as they circled the pond and departed.
After half an hour, the female loon rolled on her side to preen. Through her binoculars and camera lenses Ellie could see that the bird’s left leg was unbanded when she raised it above the water. Then the loon rolled onto her other side and raised her right leg. A bright silver metal band shone in the sunlight.
After preening, the mother loon fed the chicks some more, then one of the chicks climbed up onto her soft, feathered back to snuggle under a wing for a rest. The other chick tagged along in the water. The father loon was still in the middle of the pond. Although he had called to the mother once and she called back, he did not join her in feeding the chicks. Ellie paddled around an island and explored other parts of the pond. After a while she peeked around the large island and observed both chicks perched comfortably on the mother’s back. Ellie paddled back to the boat launch.
The photos of the female loon’s bands allowed us to identify the numbers, and proved that she was the female we had rescued from the fishing line the previous June. It was exhilarating to learn that our efforts had enabled her to survive her ordeal with the fishing line to now successfully raise a family.
On this planet of eight billion people, climate change, invasive species and pollution, it often seems like we cannot hope to make a positive difference. However, on Jabe Pond, it is rewarding to know that our work with the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation has saved the life of one mother loon, her two chicks, and possibly generations of loons to follow.
Nina Schoch, a wildlife veterinarian and rehabilitator, is the Executive Director of the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation, based at 15 Broadway in Saranac Lake.
Naturalist Ellie George monitors loons for the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation.
If you find a loon in distress, the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation recommends contacting its experts at (518) 354-8636 or firstname.lastname@example.org to handle the rescue—or talk you through it. (If a bird is chased too much, it can get stressed, which can affect its health after it’s freed from the line.) Loon conservation staff can also band the loon to monitor its future success.
If you call in a loon that appears to be in trouble, report where and when you saw the bird, and snap a photograph; people often mistake normal loon behavior for a bird in distress.
Loons stranded on a road should be caught and placed in a dark box on a rolled-up towel or other padding (their sternums bruise easily from hard surfaces). These birds should be brought to the Adirondack Loon Center or a wildlife rehabilitator for evaluation.
Learn more about loon behavior, threats and conservation at www.adkloon.org.
A version of this article originally appeared in the 2018 Guide to the Great Outdoors issue of Adirondack Life. Subscribe now to receive eight issues per year.