Newswise — Portland, ME—Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) announces that translocation of loon chicks from Maine to Massachusetts is being carried out this week. During the fifth breeding season of its Restore the Call project, BRI presents a progress report of the largest Common Loon conservation study ever conducted. Funded in 2013 by the Ricketts Conservation Foundation, Restore the Call is a five-year science-based initiative to strengthen and restore loon populations within their existing and former range. Research efforts have focused in three key U.S. breeding population centers from the western mountains to the Atlantic seaboard.

“While restoring bird species to their former range is an accepted conservation practice, this project is the first being conducted for the Common Loon,” says David C. Evers, Ph.D., BRI’s executive director and a leading expert on loon ecology and conservation.

Success for restoring loons to their former range is a three-step progression. “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. “In the first phase of this project, we have accomplished that critical goal.”

Once Common Loons fledge, they spend the next three years on or near the ocean, sometimes migrating thousands of miles to wintering grounds. In their third summer, young loons return to their natal lakes to join the breeding populations.

The second measure of success for restoring loons is to confirm that the loon returns in its third summer to the lake from which it fledged (the lake to which it was translocated, not the lake from which it hatched). “This summer, we will survey the lakes in southern Minnesota for those loons we translocated, reared, and released in the first year of this project,” says Kneeland.

Typically, loons stake out their own territories and begin to breed in their sixth summer (on average). “Once we know the loons have returned to the release area,” says Kneeland, “we will monitor them to confirm that those loons go on to establish successful breeding territories. Then, the restoration will be considered a complete success.”

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 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, researchers will move loon chicks from areas with robust loon populations from Maine 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 E botulism, mercury pollution, lead from fishing lures, oil spills, overdevelopment of shoreline property, 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.