NOTE: I’m away on vacation, so Nicholas Lund, Maine Audubon’s outreach and network manager, is writing this week’s column. – Doug Hitchcox

Part of the joy of watching common loons on Maine lakes is following families as they grow over the summer. Adults arrive back on freshwater soon after ice-out in spring and quickly get to the business of pairing up, building a nest and laying eggs. Once the eggs have hatched, the adult loons spend the rest of the summer nurturing their young until they are big and strong enough to make the flight to salt water before the ice comes.

But sometimes young loons don’t make the flight. Every year a few birds are spotted on freshwater into the fall and winter. The situation can become dire for some birds as the ice encroaches: common loons are heavy birds and need between 30 yards and a quarter-mile of a “runway” on open water to get themselves into the air, and if the ice closes in too far the loon may be trapped. Erin Dube sent us an image this winter of bald eagles feeding on a young common loon trapped in the ice at Upper Range Pond in Poland.

Along with the image, Erin asked a question we hear a lot from those who see loons in similar danger: Is this normal? Why don’t adult loons make sure their babies leave for their ocean journey at the same time?

Adult loons tend to migrate from lakes to the ocean before their young offspring. In some cases, the juvenile loons don’t make it off the lakes before ice-in.  AP Photo/Toby Talbot

It’s an issue that Tracy Hart, Wildlife Ecologist for Maine Audubon and organizer of the Maine Loon Count, knows all too well.

First, Hart confirmed that while the majority of young loons make the trip off their natal lakes to the ocean, there are always some that don’t. There are many possible reasons why a young bird doesn’t make it. For example, she says, “One was rescued in another state recently and it had a sheared off wing from a boat propeller and had to be euthanized. Others have some other injury or developmental problem. Sometimes juvenile loons hatched from a second clutch and were just too late to be fully ready to fly before ice-in.”

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She says some loon biologists have noted that they’ve seen larger numbers of “ice-in” loons following warm autumns. “It’s a bit counter-intuitive,” she says, “but a warm fall might lull loons into a false sense of security that causes them to stay longer. As a consequence they can remain until there’s not enough open water or be caught flightless in mid-molt of flight feathers when a cold snap finally hits. Common loons undergo a complete molt of their flight feathers late in the year and are flightless during that time. If the flightless period happens while a loon is still on the lake and lines up with ice-in, the loon is trapped. It’s possible we may see more iced loons with climate change.”

Whatever the cause of a loon’s inability to make it off the lake, Hart says that it’s normal for the parents of juvenile loons to leave before their young. “What often happens is that the first parent leaves as the chick becomes more adept at catching its own food, and the second leaves between three and six weeks later, providing care for a bit longer.” It may be an odd thing to witness the parents leave their young after they dote on them for the whole summer, but by that point the young bird should be able to feed and fly on its own. However, as with pretty much everything when it comes to loons, there are exceptions: there was a report that an adult and chick remained together on Cobbosseecontee Lake into December this winter.

Witnessing a loon trapped on a shrinking pond can be a heart-wrenching experience. In the past, organizations in Maine have not typically conducted ice rescues because of the danger involved and relatively low success rate. But starting this winter the Biodiversity Research Institute and Avian Haven has begun to engage with ice rescues in limited cases, including two successful rescues thanks to firefighters in Monmouth already this month. More reports are coming in each week. However, they’re only attempting rescues if the situation meets all of the criteria for likely success and safety, including proximity to shore, ice thick enough to support rescuers and equipment, and a small enough remaining open-water area that the trapped loon cannot easily escape rescuers.

Not many cases meet the criteria, but it’s still important to let them know. Otherwise, hopefully you can take some comfort in knowing that the unfortunate young loon will become food to help other creatures survive and that Maine’s population of common loons remains healthy.

YOU OTTER KNOW BETTER THAN TO FEED THEM

The pair of river otters who have taken up residence in the back ponds at Portland’s Evergreen Cemetery have delighted thousands of onlookers since they were first spotted in the fall. However, we’ve recently received reports of visitors attempting to feed the creatures, and seen images of the pair vomiting up human food they were given. Similarly, we’ve been asked a few times whether the famous Steller’s sea eagle that’s been seen along the Sheepscot River should be fed.

The answer in both cases is no. Please do not feed the river otters at Evergreen Cemetery, or otters anywhere, and do not feed the Steller’s sea eagle. Each of these creatures is perfectly fine on its own and is finding plenty to eat. Feeding them human food is dangerous for a number of reasons, including digestive issues with processed or not-fresh foods, and habituation to humans. These wild creatures have delighted so many. Let’s all work together to ensure that they remain wild and free.

Do you have a nature question for Doug? Email questions to [email protected] and visit maineaudubon.org to learn more about backyard birding, native plants, and programs and events focusing on Maine wildlife and habitat. Maine Audubon leads free bird walks on Thursdays, 8 to 10 a.m., at the Gilsland Farm Audubon Sanctuary in Falmouth.


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