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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Uncommon Loon Tunes

Air Date: Week of

In northern Idaho producer Jane Fritz canoes on a favorite pond where she often encounters loons. Fritz interprets the calls, the cries and messages of these speckled water birds.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Paddling in water. A loon calls.)

FRITZ: A loon surfaces, looks at me sideways. One red eye tilting distraction. It's trembling song warning me: danger in the changeling wind.

(Loon calls and water continue)

CURWOOD: There's nothing common about the cries of the common loon. The sound has inspired poetry and literature that attempts to evoke the spirit of this bird as a symbol of the wild north country. Producer Jane Fritz regularly canoes the loon's western habitat on Lake Pend Oreille in northern Idaho. The bird's tremolo call signals alarm, she says, and its unsettling cry, she reports, might have a broader message to convey.

(Paddling and loon calls continue)

FRITZ: I have come to know loons and their ways. Their varied songs echo in my memory until poems are born. I canoe their country as often as I can, taking care not to paddle too close. To catch a glimpse of their stunning black and white plumage, or their strange dance on the water's surface. I watch them vanish beneath the lake's stark surface to catch fish, only to marvel at the underwater distance they can cover before rising again. I have shared the loon's need for wildness. For expanses of clean, deep water. And I've shared their alarm at the pressures of human encroachment.

(Different loon call. Sounds of traffic.)

WELCH: It would be nice if they could just have that whole end of the lake or the bay cordoned off.

TAYLOR: Or buoyed off the way Sealy Lake is.

WELCH: Yeah.

FRITZ: It's Sunday in early August, and north Idaho skies are threatening rain. Jenny Taylor, a wildlife biologist for the Forest Service, and local Audubon member Jennifer Welch, are canoeing one of Lake Pend Oreille's narrow, swampy bays. The women are helping identify places that loons might nest. It's protected from the wind, but it's also next to a busy highway. Jennifer Welch fears that the human presence might deter the birds from nesting here.

WELCH: Loons are just really shy birds that are really sensitive to human activity, especially at nesting time. And on lakes like Pend Oreille, where there's a lot of recreational activity, they don't have very many places to go to get away from it.

(Water flows)

FRITZ: Loons have survived for 60 million years, but their populations have varied in north Idaho with human activity. Native people say loons were once plentiful. Then logging and mining and hydroelectric dams altered their habitat and nearly wiped them out. But loons still do migrate here, and a year ago a couple chicks were seen by birders. Yet shoreline development, boaters, jet skiers, and even campers continue to threaten the loons. And wildlife biologist Jenny Taylor says there are other problems.

TAYLOR: Idaho has only one documented location of nesting loons anywhere in the whole state for the last couple of decades, whereas Montana has dozens of locations where loons successfully breed. Part of it's the geology, part of it is the lake management. But there may be some other factors going on that we don't understand affecting the population and the breeding success.

FRITZ: The birds could thrive here again, she believes, with some help. But more scientific research is needed.

(Several people talking: "Adult go afterwards." "So you do actually get up a whole group." "Ideally we have the whole -- ""Oh.")

FRITZ: A hundred and fifty miles east, in the wee hours before dawn, under a star-studded summer sky, volunteers from the Montana Loon Society are helping researches Dave Evers and Pete Reaman capture loon families on Montana's Placid Lake. Their goal is to document migration patterns across the continent an measure the loons' exposure to pollutants like mercury. Capturing 4-week-old chicks as well as adults is by no means an easy task. It requires sensitivity to the stress the birds might endure for the half hour they're in human hands. Dave Evers.

EVERS: We've worked on around 1,100 loons our last 6 or 7 years. We try to minimize our impact on the birds. We try to get them back into the water as soon as we can. And these birds that we capture today will go about their business tomorrow morning like it was any other morning in their lives.

(A motor runs)

FRITZ: Their capture technique hinges on a combined use of light and pre-recorded loon calls, mimicking an intruding and potentially dangerous male bird suddenly entering the loon family's territory.

(A loon call)

EVERS: Some loons are very cooperative in sharing of the lake. But either way these birds that we're approaching, they have a chick, and they have to protect that chick at all costs. And so they've got to kind of investigate who is this big loon in front of them.

(A motor runs)

FRITZ: The researchers work 2 boats slowly in either direction across the lake. The adult loons call out in response to the commotion as they approach the boat.

(Loons call)

FRITZ: With a sudden sweep Dave Evers nets a bird. He signals Pete Reaman to come in and take it to shore.

(Various sounds: calling loon, footfalls, objects being moved)

FRITZ: Back on shore, Montana Loon Society member Lynn Kelly, a 7th grade science teacher, helps Dave Evers by holding one of the captured birds: a chick. An adult is as big as a goose. This chick is a third that size.

KELLY (whispering): Well, we got the male first, and then we had to go find the chick. The chick was the hardest one to catch. (Laughs) Kept hiding. Then we finally caught it. Still at the right angle?

EVERS: No, it's up ending. I'm going to go up a little higher, actually. Can you hold that leg out a little bit? [Loon call] Make sure you've got it.

KELLY: Oh, there's a good one.

FRITZ: She helps Dave Evers place uniquely colored bands on each of the chick's legs. Then he takes blood and feather samples for toxicology studies. A decade ago, Montana loons were facing some of the same problems the Idaho loons now face. Lynn Kelly observed how human disturbance affected the birds' nesting on Montana's Sealy Lake. She started a floating sign campaign that warns boaters from early May to mid-June of loons nesting nearby. Today the loon population is growing.

KELLY: It's always exciting to see a loon on the lake but maybe more exciting now to say oh yeah, that's the chick that came back, you know, that was a chick that we banded 3 years ago. It gives us, you know, an idea of where they return to.

(Sloshing water)

FRITZ: With banding completed and blood and feather samples collected, Dave Evers gently places the birds on the water again. Mysteriously, rather than fleeing, they turn and look at us, and call out.

(Loon calls)

FRITZ: Dave Evers and Pete Reaman's research in Montana and across the country is helping state and Federal agencies better understand the loon's plight. Their shared knowledge will aid in future management of the birds. The researchers plan to return again next summer to band loons in Montana, Washington, and also on Idaho's Lake Pend Oreille, if loon families can be found.

(Whispered discussion among the researches, sloshing water)

FRITZ: Back in Idaho, the seasons are changing and the loons are preparing for their long winter migration out to sea. They are gathering in the larger bays and their black and white summer dress is changing into a drab winter gray. On the ocean, the juvenile birds will float and fish for 3 years before they return to their natal territories ready to breed and give life to new generations of loons, if the habitat is still there. Their amazing journey is similar to the northwest salmon in their cycles, entirely dependent on water and perhaps as vulnerable to the ways of modern man. Like the salmon, common loons are an environmental barometer for how well we're caring for the Earth. Loon activist Jennifer Welch.

WELCH: They can teach us a lot about what we're doing to the planet. If there's a loon that's living on a lake then you must be doing something right or leaving something alone enough in that area that if they can be there then it is enough of a wilderness for a loon to make it home.

(Loon calls)

FRITZ: For Living on Earth I'm Jane Fritz.



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