The loon and the goose, volunteer intervention on Lake Fairlee

Loons are long-lived (20-30 years) and will defend their nests and chicks ferociously.

The loon and the goose, volunteer intervention on Lake Fairlee
Left to right: Eric Hanson, Doug Tifft, Eloise Girard, Tom Ward and Katherine Babbott pull and push a loon nesting raft into position on a windy day. The raft is fitted with a temporary structure to keep out geese.

A shortage of places to settle and raise a family isn’t limited to the human population, it seems. That’s what volunteers for the Vermont Loon Conservation Project have discovered in the course of monitoring a nesting raft for loons on Lake Fairlee, a lake shared by the towns of Thetford, West Fairlee, and Fairlee.

Loons are diving birds that rely on lakes for prey (fish, frogs, etc) and for nesting sites. Their superb adaptation to diving comes at a price - their legs are set so far back that they can barely walk on land and they need a long “runway” of open water to launch into flight. The eerie beauty of their echoing call is emblematic of solitude and wilderness. These birds had been absent from Lake Fairlee for years, because their population in Vermont was decimated to the point of listing them as an endangered species. The absence of loons prompted researchers at VINS (VT Institute of Natural Science), and later the Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE), to survey loons across Vermont from the late 1970s on. They found that, despite having many lakes, the state hosted very few pairs of loons, sinking to a low of only seven pairs in 1983. Lake shore development that puts humans and their pets too close to nesting areas; excessive disturbance by boats, water skiers and curious observers; flooding by boat wakes or artificial water level adjustment; entanglement in fishing tackle; and poisoning by lead sinkers are cited as the chief reasons. The last two account for nearly 50% of loon deaths.

Lake Fairlee is a popular destination with its share of lakeshore development, boats, and fishing. However, the success of loon recovery initiatives on other Vermont lakes, thanks to the VT Loon Conservation Project, a collaboration of VCE and the State of VT, increased the state’s population. Loons were removed from the endangered list in 2005, and by 2021 there were 109 nesting pairs in Vermont. They hatched 125 chicks, of which 85 had survived by the summer’s end. Due to the success of restoration, loons have slowly fanned out in search of more nesting habitat. One pair found just that in the weedy, shallow mouth of Blood Brook on Lake Fairlee. They successfully hatched a single chick there in 2016.

Loons are monogamous. Pairs stay together till one of them dies or the male is ousted by a competitor, sometimes in a lethal battle. In common with many bird species, they return to the same breeding site year after year. Thus the same pair came back in 2017, and this time chose to nest on a peninsula at Treasure Island, Thetford’s recreation area. This prompted the Thetford Selectboard to cordon off the peninsula, but their actions did not keep out a raccoon that devoured the eggs.

At this point the Vermont Loon Conservation Project came to the rescue. On Memorial Day weekend, long-time loon biologist Eric Hanson transported a nesting raft of cedar logs to Lake Fairlee. The floating haven was anchored in the cove at the north end of the lake, not far from the shore of Treasure Island. With no time to waste, the loon pair proceeded to nest on the raft immediately, and successfully hatched a chick. Local volunteers put up warning buoys to fend off boaters, and things were going well up until 2020.

Loon nesting on raft; the loon’s black head and while collar are visible. Behind is a floating sign warning boaters to keep their distance. iPhone image, courtesy of Doug Tifft.`

It was then that Doug Tifft, who monitors the loons from his residence on that cove, saw to his dismay that a goose, complete with its clutch of eggs, was sitting on the raft. Compared to loons, geese breed early. They are often finished with nesting by the second week in May, while loons tend to begin nesting towards the end of that month. Doug and Eric decided to let the geese be, in hope that the loons would wait. But this particular pair of loons are habitual “early nesters,” often the first in the entire state, and 2020 was no exception. They nested near the Blood Brook outlet, but ran afoul of a predator, possibly a mink, that took the eggs.

After this, the war on geese began, though, rest assured, no geese were actually harmed. Prior to nesting season in 2021, Doug placed a fence around the perimeter of the raft, assuming that geese got onto the raft from the water. This was disproved when a goose was seen sitting inside the fence. A horizontal barrier of wooden stakes on top of the fence blocked the aerial intruders before any goose eggs were laid. The barriers were taken down in time for the loons, and the volunteers were rewarded with the hatching of one chick.

It’s hard to deter a nesting goose - the first “goose guard” did not pass muster. Photo courtesy of Doug Tifft`

Geese, raccoons, and mink, not to mention ravens, northern pike, and snapping turtles, are just some of the perils that nesting loons contend with. And now another species recently removed from the endangered list — the bald eagle — is having an impact. While little hard data has been collected in Vermont, New Hampshire biologists estimated that about 3% of loon nest failures coincided with nearby bald eagle nests. “We confirmed that eagles have joined a wide range of stressors currently impacting loons in New Hampshire,” said Loon Preservation Committee Senior Biologist John Cooley. “This result is great motivation to keep reducing the impacts caused by humans, like lead tackle poisoning, so that eventually the primary challenge for nesting loons can once again be natural predators like eagles.”

Wisconsin and Maine biologists reported bald eagles taking loon eggs and even killing adult loons on the nest. There are also documented reports of bald eagles taking loon chicks, vulnerable in their first 4-5 weeks, but especially in their first two weeks after hatching. Sightings of bald eagles on Lake Fairlee have increased over the years, which is thrilling to residents, but concerning to loon watchers.

With this in mind, Vermont Loon Conservation Project biologists Eric Hanson and Eloise Girard returned to Lake Fairlee recently, to refurbish the raft that had been in the water since 2017. Working alongside local volunteers, they added better flotation to the waterlogged structure. They also added a freshly-dug clump of shrubs in hope that it would make the loon nest less vulnerable to eagles, as well as provide a wind break. The raft, complete with temporary goose blocker, was re-anchored in its usual spot.

The nesting raft prior to being refurbished`

The group swapped loon stories, like pulling off the night-time rescue of a distressed loon on Lake Fairlee that had been noticed by alert loon-watchers. The bird had swallowed a fishing lure, and the nylon line was tangled round its beak so it could not feed. Eric directed the rescue, in which a spotlight was used to dazzle the loon so it could be captured with a dipnet. (This does not always work, often the loon evades capture by diving.) Eric carefully removed the line from the bird’s beak and banded the bird, and it returns to Post Pond to this day. Another point of pride — for the past six years, the loon pair on Lake Fairlee has hatched, on average, one chick per year.

Loons are long-lived (20-30 years) and will defend their nests and chicks ferociously. As Eric observed, their population has recovered to a point where soon we won’t need to install nest rafts. So long as humans refrain from harassing them with boats and boat wakes, don’t encroach on nest habitat, and stop leaving lead objects and fishing line in lakes, loons are capable of surviving natural predation.

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