A Bird’s Tale

Loon Rescue

Posted:  Wednesday, August 9, 2017 - 9:00am

We had the pleasure of relaxing on a porch overlooking a favorite central Maine lake over the weekend with family. In the late afternoon light, the forest on the far shore seemed impossibly green against the deep blue of the sky. An osprey dove repeatedly into the shallows of a small cove nearby, snatching small fish to take to its nearly fledged chicks on an island across the way. A belted kingfisher rattled as it flew across in front of us and landed on a pole at the end of the neighbor’s dock. When a group of four common loons drifted from around the point into our view, the conversation shifted to a memory from last summer, about this same time of year.

Our niece, nephew, and sister-in-law had, over the course of a day, become aware of strange sounds coming from farther down the lake shore. Eventually they investigated and discovered that the sounds were coming from a loon that was thrashing about near a neighbor’s swimming float about 75 feet from shore. More detective work seemed to indicate that the bird was somehow caught up in a rope associated with the float.

Loons are large birds with a large bill; getting close to one, especially one that is frenzied and terrified, is something not recommended except for experts. Loons are also protected by law, so interacting with them should normally only be done by or with the ok of wildlife officials.

That’s why sister-in-law Nina’s first call was to the game warden service, hoping someone could come out and free the bird. Game wardens patrol vast areas of the state and have to maintain a dizzying array of responsibilities. This particular game warden was no exception. He was too far from the location and would not be able to get there in time to save the loon. Fortunately, he did provide careful over-the-phone instructions to Nina and her two kids so that they could safely paddle out in their kayaks and try to cut the rope to release the bird. Bring a large fishing net, he instructed, to subdue the bird while freeing it and to ensure that no one was accidently injured by the frantic bird.

With a bit of trepidation but feeling it was the right thing to do, Nina and the kids ventured out. They tried first to approach the trapped bird and attempt to cut the rope without using the net. The loon, giving little calls of alarm, struggled and pulled, at one point dragging Nina’s kayak along with it for a bit. The kids moved in with the other kayak to help and, with great poise, dropped the net over the bird. This gave their mom just enough time to cut the rope and untangle it from around its shoulder where it had formed an unintentional slip knot that had been tightening every time the bird pulled to free itself.

Their triumph and relief was palpable when they saw the loon swim quickly away. Luckily for the loon there was no sign of external injury or any obvious other problems, though surely it had to have some strained and bruised muscles from the ordeal. It was no doubt pretty tired.

As we watched the loons on the lake a year later on this recent summer afternoon, one came in close, within a hundred feet or so from the porch where we sat. We wondered if it was listening to the story. Perhaps it was remembering—or maybe, in its own way, saying “thanks.”

Authors’ Note: Our niece caught the action with her GoPro camera - you can watch the video online at https://youtu.be/v3ekUN50Qlg or click the link at our Boothbay Register column online.

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” and the just-released “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao.”