Keep eyes and ears open for uncommon common loon

Anyone who has spent time near a lake and heard the haunting call of the common loon likely has some love for this unusual waterfowl. In June, Vermont’s oldest loon, estimated to be at least 31 years old, died of apparent old age.

Loons are flourishing in Vermont this year. Photo by Janet Steward courtesy Vermont Center on Ecostudies
Loons are flourishing in Vermont this year.
Photo by Janet Steward courtesy Vermont Center on Ecostudies.

The Newark Pond Male has been followed by researchers from Vermont Center for Ecostudies and Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department for much of his adult life.

In 1998, Eric Hanson, then a visiting biologist at Vermont Institute of Nature Science, banded the loon, making it possible over a quarter century to track his movements.

“That bird could show up in Long Island or Massachusetts and someone could report that to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lab,” Hanson said. “They would be able to look at that band and tell exactly where the bird was banded.”

It is estimated that Newark Pond Male flew more than 15,000 miles in his lifetime, most often wintering in salt water off Cape Cod.

Hanson now heads the Loon Conservation Project. The project works in partnership with Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department and has supported the common loon’s return to lakes across the state through education, research, and advocacy.

Until 2005, the loon was on Vermont’s endangered species list. In 1998, researchers knew of 40 territorial pairs, of which 30 nested. In 2022, territorial pairs numbered 139 with 106 of them nesting.

The 32 loons the team banded between 1998 and 2003 have added to research that has provided key insights about the species. Banding has provided a way of tracking loons as they compete for territory and migrate in the winter months. Researchers have also learned through banding that loons don’t mate for life.

With its heavy body and huge feet, a loon can dive to great depths for long stretches in search of fish, which make up most of its diet. Because of their build, the birds need a long runway before flight. And yet, once airborne they can cover some distance.

Newark Pond Male’s mate disappeared sometime in the early 2000s.

“It’s possible she died or was challenged by another female and lost her place in the lake,” Hanson said.

Loons are site-specific, rather than mate-specific. For about a decade, no one spotted Newark Pond Male.

Hansen said, “He may have been kicked out of the territory for a few years.”

In time, Newark Pond Male won his way back and returned to Newark Pond where he mated with another female.

“To me, it’s so cool that these birds are vying for territory,” Hansen said. “They’re always checking each other out.”

Non-breeders assess the situation and then may challenge residents. They may have a dispute that results in a change of mates.

Keep your eyes and ears open for the common loon. Just yesterday I spotted one (still hoping to see its mate) on Converse Bay. Oh, joy!