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Iced-in loons saved from eagles

An eagle, at right, waits to feast on three flightless loons iced into a small area of open water on Lake George Sunday. (Provided photo — G. and M. Chapman)

SARANAC LAKE — The Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation successfully coordinated a rescue of three adult loons who were iced in on Lake George.

On Sunday afternoon, local residents and birders contacted Dr. Nina Schoch, executive director of the Loon Center, to report the loons swimming in a small hole in the ice. Eagles had already taken a fourth loon, and an eagle was sitting at the edge of the ice watching the other three loons closely.

“That area of the lake had just iced up last week. With the relatively mild winter, the loons were likely wintering over on Lake George when the below-zero weather trapped them by quickly forming ice,” Schoch said in a press release.

“At this time of the year, loons are molting into their breeding plumage and are often flightless because their wing feathers have not yet grown back in. Thus, they are unable to fly if the ice forms quickly and they get trapped.”

Schoch said saving adult loons is important as they are able to return to the breeding grounds for many years, since they live to be 20 to 30 years old. However, an ice rescue of loons is potentially dangerous, as the ice can be thin next to the puddle where the loons are trapped. Sometimes conditions are not safe enough to attempt a rescue, so each situation is evaluated carefully and numerous safety precautions are taken.

A flightless loon squawks at the man who netted it Sunday on Lake George, rescuing it from eagles. (Provided photo — E. George)

The Loon Center, based in Saranac Lake, has coordinated several such rescues in the past. The rescuers wear safety gear and net the birds from a canoe. A long-handled net is used to extract the loon from the water and then it is placed in a padded bin.

“It took a while to catch the first bird, as they were pretty nervous and diving under water repeatedly. Once the first one was caught, the other two were netted within minutes and in the bins to transport them back to shore,” Schoch said. “It’s the first time we’ve had to net three loons out of the same puddle — it was very exciting!”

The loons were checked to be sure they were in good physical condition, then banded and transported to Lake Champlain for release in open water. One had completely molted out all its wing feathers, while the other two were already growing them back in. After release, the three loons quickly swam away from shore and then gathered together and began preening.

“They were likely very relieved to be out of their predicament,” Schoch said.

The Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation thanked Roger and Wendy Saks for giving them access to the lake, Forest Ranger Matt Savarie, the center’s biologist Emily Prosser, and volunteers Lance Durfey, Malinda and Glen Chapman, Tim Demers, and Ellie and Cal George for their assistance in this rescue.

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