Errol, N.H. — The parent loon dipped its head into the water. It looked back at its tiny, four-day-old chick. The chick dipped its head.
Finally, the parent dived completely under the water. The chick dived, disappeared and popped back up, to the wonder of field researcher Pete Grebowski, my guide from New Hampshire’s Loon Preservation Committee.
“Amazing!” Grebowski said. “That’s the first time I saw that chick dive, and I’ve never seen teaching behavior like that up so close. That’s so special.”
Unfortunately, the moment was too special. The chick was one of only two that survived this summer in the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, compared with an average of between seven and eight a year in the 1990s.
This is a warning from the bird with the haunting cry, as chick production is declining across New England.
It is a mystery why, despite “record levels of management,” according to Harry Vogel, chief biologist at the Loon Preservation Committee. For much of the 20th century, loons were dramatically diminished by hunting and mercury emissions from power plants. Conservation efforts sparked a dramatic rebound in northern New England. Even Massachusetts, which had no breeding pairs from 1925 to 1975, now has 35.
Sue Gallo, wildlife biologist at Maine Audubon, said “a whole suite of small threats” are assaulting the bird. On some lakes, its marshy nesting areas are being choked by invasive plant species. On others, the otherwise glorious recovery of the bald eagle is a factor, as eagles find bobbing loon chicks an easy target.
Then there is climate change. Loons are already at the southernmost edge of its breeding range. That makes it especially vulnerable to shifts in the environment.
David Evers, chief scientist for the Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine, said it’s hard to figure out how to focus new protections. His institute recently won a $6.5 million grant to study loons from Maine to Idaho. The project may involve translocating chicks, a method successfully used to restore eagle, falcon, condor, and puffin populations.
Vogel said that given how much effort has already gone into protecting loons, the chick decline “is a little disheartening.” If we want to keep the haunting cry on our lakes, our efforts will have to have even greater focus.