Portland, ME—Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) has confirmed today that the translocation of loon chicks from Maine to Massachusetts has resulted in at least one loon returning to its release lake. In its fifth year of a five-year initiative funded by the Ricketts Conservation Foundation, Restore the Call is the largest Common Loon conservation study ever conducted. Research efforts have focused in three key U.S. breeding population areas from the western mountains to the Atlantic seaboard.
Restoring bird species to their former range is an accepted bird conservation practice, but this is the first time translocation has been carried out for the Common Loon.
“This is a big moment for loon conservation,” says David Evers, Ph.D., BRI’s executive director and a leading expert on loon ecology and conservation. “This is the first time a translocated loon chick has returned to the lake from which it was released. The implications for future conservation efforts to help restore loons to their former breeding range are tremendous.”
The banded one-year-old juvenile (a term given to loons under three years of age) sighted early on Wednesday morning, August 16, was confirmed to be one of five chicks that were successfully translocated from Maine in the summer of 2016, reared in and released on a lake in southeastern Massachusetts. The juvenile, sighted again on the following day, was initially observed in a group with two other young loons, all in basic plumage (they had not yet developed the recognizable black and white breeding plumage).
“Our first measure of success was to develop a safe and replicable approach for translocation and captive rearing of loon chicks—moving them to a new lake location and confirming that they fledged from that lake,” says Michelle Kneeland, D.V.M., director of BRI’s Wildlife Health Program and principle researcher developing the translocation and captive rearing protocols for this study. “In the first phase of this project, we accomplished that critical goal.”
The second measure of success for restoring loons is to confirm that the loon returns to the lake region from which it fledged (the lake to which it was translocated, not the natal lake from which it hatched). Once Common Loons fledge, they typically spend the next two-plus years on or near the ocean, sometimes migrating thousands of miles to wintering grounds. Usually, by their third summer, young loons start to return to their natal lakes to join the breeding population.
Sometimes juvenile loons return from wintering grounds to their natal lake or nearby lakes to socialize and feed as early as one year after fledging. “This is one of those cases,” says Lee Attix, BRI’s lead loon researcher in Massachusetts. “Although only one year old, this banded juvenile loon gives us confirmation that it has returned to the release lake versus the natal lake, and we hope it is the harbinger of a new breeding population for the area. In my 21 years of studying loons, this is the most significant finding.”
During 2017 summer surveys in southern Minnesota, the state where BRI researchers began developing the methodology and protocols for loon translocation, a loon in breeding plumage has been sighted on the translocation release lake in that region. “While we have been able to confirm that this loon is one of our banded and released loons, we still do not know which cohort it is from,” says Evers.
BRI’s Timeline for Translocating Loon Chicks:
Translocation within Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes
During the 2014, 2015, and 2016 breeding seasons, BRI researchers, in cooperation with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), successfully translocated 17 chicks (five in 2014; seven in 2015; five in 2016) from the large breeding populations in northern Minnesota to unoccupied lakes south of the Twin Cities, Minnesota. Chicks translocated in the first two seasons ranged in age between 6 and 9 weeks old; those in the third season were older than 9 weeks. Surveyors will monitor the lakes this season to identify any loons that had fledged in 2014.
Translocating Loon Chicks across State Lines
In 2015, researchers translocated chicks across state boundaries. In collaboration with New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, seven chicks were successfully moved from New York’s Adirondack Park to a lake in southeastern Massachusetts—a lake that was the last known breeding site for loons in the state before their extirpation around the turn of the 20th century. While breeding loons recolonized Massachusetts in the Quabbin Lake region in 1975 and today number more than 40 pairs, breeding loons have yet to reoccupy many other parts of the state.
In 2016, BRI successfully translocated nine chicks to the same lake in southeastern Massachusetts (four from New York; five from Maine) with assistance from Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife and Maine Audubon Society. Of those chicks, six were 4-6 weeks old at the time they were moved; three were older than 9 weeks. The younger chicks were captive reared (they were brought to a holding pen in the lake where they learn to feed on their own). The older chicks, able to feed on their own, were released directly onto the lake.
This summer to date, researchers have moved three loon chicks from areas in Maine with robust loon populations to the same release lake used in Massachusetts in 2015 and 2016.
The Restore the Call study area encompasses national parks and other public lands in the West (Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho), the Midwest (Minnesota); and the Northeast (Maine, Massachusetts, and New York). When the study began in 2013, researchers focused primarily on surveying populations in these regions.
Population assessments help researchers identify sources of ecological stressors that may contribute to population declines. “It is important to identify key threats to existing populations,” says Evers, “and to create scientifically-based solutions for reducing those threats.” Ecological stressors that affect loons include: type mercury pollution, lead from fishing lures, oil spills, human disturbance, over development of shoreline property, E botulism, and improper water level management. Components of the five-year initiative include implementation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Conservation and Management Plan and creation of state-specific working groups to develop restoration plans. “We would not be able to attempt a project of this scope if we did not have RCF leading the way and the cooperation of state and federal wildlife agencies as well as key loon conservation nonprofits.”
The loon is a key bioindicator of the health of our lakes as well as near shore marine ecosystems across North America. Beyond the first five years of the study, BRI hopes to develop a program to monitor the new breeding populations in the initial target regions.