Something Wild: Loon Facts and Fate

Sep 15, 2017

The iconic call of the loon is one you’ll hear on ponds and lakes throughout the state. We’re checked in with John Cooley, Senior Biologist with the Loon Preservation Committee to learn a bit about the bird and the state of its welfare.

The iconic call of the loon is one you’ll hear on ponds and lakes throughout the state. We’re checked in with John Cooley, Senior Biologist with the Loon Preservation Committee to learn a bit about the bird and the state of its welfare.

First off we know there just shy of 300 pairs of loons in New Hampshire, about 200 of those pairs built a nest. And Cooley says they’re all over the state, “from Little Island Pond in Pelham near the Massachusetts border to Third Connecticut Lake just miles from Canada.” Bodies of water are his reference points because that’s where loons are happiest.

In fact, that’s almost the only place they can operate with any efficiency. Loons are a little ungainly when taking off and landing, or even just trying to get around on dry land. “They’ve evolved to have their feet far back on their body,” says, Cooley. Unlike geese or other water fowl that can easily walk around on land, the loons leg placement means they flail, using their wings to assist. And so they don’t often leave the water. “They’re only on land if they’re nesting, but they won’t nest farther than a few feet from the water.”

Their flying exploits are similarly awkward, Cooley describes them as the “B-52s of the avian world.” They require a long runway to get up to flight speed and they don’t land as much as fall out of the sky. Once they get moving they can keep up a speed of 80-90 miles per hour, particularly during migration. They’re flying issues are due largely to the fact that “they’ve maxed out the ratio of wing surface area to body weight.”

But they sure can swim. In their element, they make easy prey of yellow perch and crayfish.

Earlier this year, the NH legislature enacted a ban on all lead fishing gear – a follow up to a 2000 bill that encoded a partial ban. Cooley is optimistic about the future of loon populations, “what we’ve seen in the 16 years since that initial ban is a slight drop in the number of mortalities that was caused by those sinkers. It’s not a statistically significant drop, yet. But it looks like we’re heading in the right direction.”

There are remaining threats to loons: predators, shoreline development. But Cooley points to climate change as the single largest long-term concern. “Loons are a northern species, nesting and breeding at the southern edge of their range here in NH. If you look at the predictions for what the climate will be like, the suitable climate for loons is likely to shift north in the next century entirely out of NH.”

But despite these threats, loon populations in NH are at the highest they’ve been since we’ve started counting (about 40 years ago). Cooley credits of the recovery to the loons LPC (also founded about 40 years ago), but points out that the groups effort have only restored the loon to population levels of 100-300 years ago. It is estimated that Loon populations had been in decline long before the LPC was founded. He points out that “loons as a long-lived species, slow to colonize their former habitat and recover as a population. We’re still a long ways from what it should be.”