Five loons rescued from bald eagles
ACLC prepares for more rescues as climate change disrupts migration patterns
This year has been the busiest on record for the ACLC in terms of loon rescues. It’s a rising phenomenon, brought on by climate change, and the ACLC is preparing to handle more of them in the future by asking volunteers to train and be at the ready around the Adirondack Park to help with rescues next season.
Eric Teed, Kevin Boyle, Dan Spada and John Rosenthal were part-way through a 20-plus mile Nordic skate on Lake Champlain on Saturday when they saw five loons trapped in a small hole in the ice, and nearby, seven bald eagles picking at the carcass of a loon that had been trapped in an even smaller ice hole.
Teed called his friend, ACLC Executive Director Nina Schoch, whom he refers to as “General Schoch.” She picked up on the second ring and when he told her he was out on Lake Champlain she just had one question: “How many loons?”
Schoch said five is the most loons the ACLC has helped rescue at one time.
The skaters went over and flushed out the eagles, but they didn’t have the equipment to save the loons.
The next day, Sunday, Teed and Boyle, with a team from ACLC — Wildlife Technician Cody Sears, Field Staffer Ellie George, Philanthropy Director Susan Harry and Gift Shop Manager Jackie Miller — went out on the lake from the Vermont side.
The hole with the loons was around a mile away from shore. Now, there were around a dozen bald eagles surrounding them, circling, eyeing the helpless birds. Using a spotting scope, Teed only saw two loons left. He was worried the eagles had gotten to the other three.
But as they approached, three more beaks breached the water. Teed suspects that they were diving under the ice to avoid the eagle attacks.
Only one had its full flight feathers. The others had molted theirs and were completely flightless.
The hole was small enough to reach the loons. Teed said when a loon gets trapped by ice, they’ll try to keep a wide hole of open water by swimming around. But as it gets cold, the ice slowly traps them. It’s got to be a frightening experience, he said. Eventually, they’ll tire and not be able to fend off or avoid an eagle attack.
If a hole is too big, though, rescue crews can’t reach the bird.
ACLC staff brought rescue gear, nets and bins to transport the loons. Teed and Boyle brought ice safety gear and the knowledge of how to “read ice.”
Boyle scouted the ice for open water and found a spot to the north that was ice-free.
One of the loons was what the ACLD lovingly calls a “repeat offender.” It had an ACLC band on its leg from when it had been rescued from an ice-in on Lake George last winter.
Teed said it was an “extraordinary experience” being part of the rescue mission. On Wednesday, speaking with the Enterprise, he paused to collect himself.
“I didn’t think I would be so emotional,” he said. “It was amazing.”
Teed said as the birds were released one-by-one into the open water, they’d swim off but look back for their fellow loons. Eventually, they were all together again, swimming north toward more open water and “another chance.”
Boyle, who had never been so close to a loon before, said in a statement that he doesn’t “often get a chance to change the world.”
“It feels good,” Teed said, but he also lamented that humans are the cause of most of the loons’ problems.
“All the threats that they face, of course, are man-made,” Teed said.
“We are seeing an increasing incidence of ‘molt-migration mismatch’ in loons across the Northeast,” Schoch said. “With climate change, as the larger lakes aren’t freezing until later in the winter when the loons have already molted out their flight feathers.”
Loons are supposed to migrate from their breeding lakes to warmer, open water before molting their flight feathers. But, in recent years, Schoch has seen more loons molt before they head to their winter homes, leaving them flightless for around a month, stranded on shrinking open waters.
As the climate in the Northeast warms, it takes longer for lakes to freeze over, and then suddenly, mid-season, the temperature will drop and the lakes ice over quickly.
When the weather patterns loons have relied on for years to tell them when to migrate and molt change, they get mixed messages from the environment, and sometimes respond too late.
She calls this a “molt-migration mismatch.”
When Schoch started saving loons in 1998, she didn’t see many iced-in birds. It was mostly summer dangers — lead sinkers, tackle and fishing hooks.
What was once a rare event is happening more and more regularly. Schoch said incidents picked up in 2013 and this year, the ACLC’s rescued rescued nine birds so far, the most in a single season.
In December, a loon was rescued from Star Lake, and in February, three were rescued from Lake George.
“It’s just becoming part of our work now,” Schoch said.
She said she’s setting up rescue reams around the Adirondacks to be ready to respond to emergencies next winter. She’ll start trainings this spring and summer.
To join and train to be on a rescue team, email email@example.com.