A Christmas Loon

We began to worry about the loon in early December. What was it still doing here? For 18 years, we’d watched the loons come and go from the Vermont lake we live on, arriving in April as soon as the ice disappeared, raising a chick or two over the summer and fall, then heading for […]

By Rowan Jacobsen

Oct 20 2022

A Christmas Loon

We began to worry about the loon in early December. What was it still doing here? For 18 years, we’d watched the loons come and go from the Vermont lake we live on, arriving in April as soon as the ice disappeared, raising a chick or two over the summer and fall, then heading for their winter fishing grounds off the New England coast in November, before the ice returned.

But this one didn’t go, and it was running out of time. Loons have solid bones built for diving, and feet set like propellers in the rear. Pure poetry underwater, they are complete klutzes on land, barely able to push along on their bellies, and they are heavy. Like a seaplane, they need a long stretch of open water to get airborne. An iced-in loon is a dead loon. Coyotes and eagles. Cold and starvation.

As the December days slipped by and the first tongues of ice began to extend from the coves, the dozen or so households that rim the lake grew anxious. It was the first order of conversation when we bumped into each other walking the road that hugs the western shore. It’s going to fly, right? What if it doesn’t?

That may sound like a lot of fuss about one bird, but loons have a special hold on the lakeside communities they share their summers with. It’s that mournful howl echoing off the hills, a finger of wildness running down your spine.

And yet, for all that wildness, they are also paragons of domesticity. The same pair of birds return year after year, making their nest in the sheltered cove, cruising past our docks on their daily rounds, dauntlessly serving an endless string of minnows to their fumbling chicks. They are one of us. So when a chick finally flies for the first time in late fall, heading for the Gulf of Maine or Nantucket Sound, from which it will return in a few years to set up its own home somewhere nearby, we get the quiet joy of completion.

For many New Englanders, this is a relatively new pleasure. The birds were nearly wiped out in the 19th and 20th centuries—victims of hunting, habitat loss, and lead poisoning from sinkers, which they sometimes ingest. Forty years ago, Vermont was down to seven nesting pairs. Massachusetts had none. Since then, a resurgence. Vermont just climbed to over 100 pairs, New Hampshire has more than 300, and Maine, with its vast expanse of glacial lakes, boasts 1,700. Even Massachusetts has more than 40 pairs.

Our own little lake, a half-mile oval, is only big enough to support a single pair, but we’ve been on an amazing run, fledging one or two chicks a year for 15 years. We credit our success to Eric Hanson, the biologist who has spearheaded the Vermont Loon Recovery Project for more than 20 years. Working on a shoestring budget that supports only a part-time position (he grooms ski trails in the winter), Eric has cultivated a network of hundreds of volunteers living on loon-likely lakes, teaching us to protect and improve nesting sites, to educate anglers on loon-safe practices (no lead sinkers, no wakes, reel in if you see a loon eyeing your bait), and to steer kayakers away from nests and chicks.

Eric is always on call to field a question or rescue a loon in trouble, so he was my go-to in August of 2020, when our only chick of the year was killed and eaten by an eagle. My son found the carcass on the shoreline, ripped open like a piñata, the malefactor perched on a branch above like a cartoon villain.

Eagles and loons are bitter enemies. Loons shriek like air-raid sirens when they spot an incoming eagle. For years, I’d watched eagles dive-bomb loon chicks without ever taking any, and I’d stopped worrying, especially once the young were nearly full-grown and able to dive on their own, as this one had been. So the death came as a shock.

Get used to it, Eric counseled. In northern Maine, nearly half the loon chicks are lost to eagles. Even adults are vulnerable. As both loon and eagle populations grow, expect to see a lot more predation. It’s normal. It’s fine.

Sure. But this was one of us. In 2021, our loon pair produced no chicks for the first time in memory. It felt like our karma had turned.

By the winter solstice, a skein of ice covered most of the lake. With dismay, we watched the loon become trapped in an ever-shrinking pool in the center. No fish, no way out, and subfreezing nights that were only getting colder.

The village was abuzz with rescue plans. Several neighbors offered their skiffs. But it was impossible. The ice was too thick for boating and too thin for walking.

By Christmas Eve the loon’s world was down to a 10-foot hole, which the loon was keeping open with its watery pacing, like the pupil in the eye of a giant that couldn’t fall asleep.

Our neighbor, Karin McNeil, had a clear view of the unfolding tragedy from her living room window. Karin’s a romantic, known to call out to loons in hopes of a response. She wrote Eric Hanson, who checked the ice with his auger: two inches; not enough.

Eric does a handful of loon rescues every year. Some birds get entangled in fishing gear. Others land on ponds that are too small for takeoff, or on roads mistaken for rivers. Very few are ice rescues, because of the danger. The only time he’ll try it is when the ice gets thick and the hole closes, forcing the loon onto the ice, so it can’t dive. By then, however, the loon has endured weeks of cold and starvation. And eagles often get it first.

“Why bother with rescues at all?” I asked Eric. If loon populations are growing, what does it matter?

“It matters for that loon,” he replied. But that’s not all, he added. “It’s the people that bird touches. The story that bird tells.”

At dusk we followed the road to the point closest to the loon’s hole, peering through the gloom. The loon flapped its wings halfheartedly and gave its Who’s out there? call, waiting for a reply that never came. It sounded weak.

A freezing rain fell all Christmas Day. Those of us with a lake view stared out at the grim, glassy scene and grappled with the gut punch that we were going to spend Christmas watching this loon die. When I passed Karin on the road, she was still working on ways to somehow get a boat out there. I tried, as gently as possible, to suggest that it might be out of our hands.

Karin’s husband, Ben, a longtime student of Buddhism, meditates at dawn, gazing out at the lake. The morning after Christmas, the rising light revealed a stark tableau: The loon, still in its hole, staring at an eagle perched on the edge. For a long time, the two adversaries regarded each other in silence, just a few feet apart. Then the eagle lifted off, turned a widening gyre around the hole, and flapped away.

What to make of this parley? Eric Hanson has no idea. Neither do I. I can picture the Far Side cartoon, but I can’t figure out the caption. All I know is that something lit a fire under that loon’s ass. Afterward, it finally tried to free itself, managing to flop its way out of the hole before crashing back onto the ice a few yards away. It turned and hopped awkwardly back to its shrinking prison.

But when Karin checked the ice a few hours later, the loon was gone. Sunk to the bottom of the lake? Or miraculous escape?

She called Eric Hanson. News! A motorist had reported a loon struggling on the road at a fork near the lake. Eric was en route but an hour away, and a game warden had been dispatched from a nearby town.

The directions were vague, but Karin thought they might refer to a spot south of the lake, where the hills converge below the dam. If so, the loon had managed to flap and flop a half mile before crashing into the snowy road. She grabbed an old overcoat for loon catching and raced out the door. The world was still glazed in ice from the Christmas storm, so she covered the half mile to the road below the dam by foot. She looked up and down the road. No loon. Where does a loon on a road go? Most of the possibilities she could think of weren’t good.

Her mind was flitting through the handful of other spots that might fit the motorist’s description when a big black truck with the golden Vermont Fish & Wildlife logo came slowly up the road and stopped in front of her. The window rolled down and a young, clean-cut warden looked out. “I’m looking for a loon,” he said.

“Me, too,” Karin replied.

The warden, Mike Scott, parked his truck and joined the foot search. A hundred yards up the road, a trough in the snow the width of a loon belly dropped down a precipitous bank and disappeared into the trees in the direction of the swift creek that runs out of the lake. On either side of the trough were the scratch marks of webbed feet. Karin did her best loon call in the direction of the trail: Who’s out there?

I am! came the immediate reply. She spotted the loon in the creek, paddling hard to stay in place. She called several times, and every time, the loon answered.

Mike donned waders, grabbed a blanket, pulled on his elbow-length wildlife-wrangling gloves, and slid down the bank. Karin followed.

The loon grew increasingly agitated as Mike eased himself into the water downstream of it, feeling his way over the ice-encrusted rocks. Before he had his footing, the loon turned and charged downstream, striking with its dagger-like four-inch bill. Mike caught it by the neck, trying not to topple backward into the stream, and wrapped the blanket around its body. Holding it like a thrashing bagpipe, he carefully made his way out of the creek and up the bank.

Eric showed up a half hour later. While Mike held the loon still, Eric checked it for injuries, feeling his way along its wing and leg bones. It was healthy and plenty feisty. They eased it into a box—the loon taking Mike’s glove with it—and Eric took it to Lake Champlain, which doesn’t freeze over completely, working on a poem about staring into the deathly eye of an eagle as he drove.

Eric’s favorite loon-release point is a rocky promontory behind the ECHO Center, the science museum on the Burlington waterfront. He carried the box out to the point and opened it. The loon slid out onto the water, flapped once to zip its feathers back into place, hooted at him, and paddled away. It was the sixth bird of 2021 that had gotten a second chance thanks to Eric’s efforts. With any luck, it spent a week or two fattening up on Lake Champlain perch, then made its way to the sea. I pictured it there, ducking waves, as I watched the hole seal over. By New Year’s, a blanket of snow erased everything, and the lake at last fell into its winter slumber, dreaming of spring.