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Counting Loons On Lake Winnipesaukee

Every year the Loon Preservation Committee does a count of NH's loons on Lake Winnipesaukee.  I decided to go out on the lake with them to find out how the loons are doing.

The Director of the Loon Preservation Committee, Harry Vogel, leads me down a forest path toward a boat slip on the northern tip of Lake Winnipesaukee. We'll be touring the lake looking for loons in advance of the population census later in the week. Within moments - maybe it's unavoidable - we're talking about On Golden Pond, which Vogel had just re-watched.

"And I was surprised.  It's like, damn, that's a good film. 
Is it because you're the head of the Loon Center that you have to watch it once a year?
No, it's not a job requirement.  This was entirely on my own time."

I hadn't seen the film in 30 years, but I remember being swept up by the sweetly tumbling sunlight-on-water piano theme and the chilly wail of those loons, like the sound of your own ghost passing through you.

"Norman! The loons, they're welcoming us back...
I don't hear a thing..."

"It kind of vaulted loons into the spotlight, cause at the same time loons were already showing some pretty severe declines throughout the state."

Vogel says people began to notice loons were less common on the lakes in the early 70's.  

"And the thinking at that time was that if human activities had contributed to those declines then human activities if they were coordinated and thoughtful could reverse those declines once again."

We meet Melissa Leszik at the boat.  A biologist with the LPC she spends 40 hours a week on the lake.

"Alright, so is the boat bailed?
It is.
We're ready to go."

Credit Sean Hurley
Melissa Leszek and Harry Vogel loon spotting.

There were less than 100 pairs of loons on Winnipesaukee in 1975 when the  LPC began its work.

"And last year we were up to 284 pairs of loons, so we more than tripled the loon population. The year before that we were at 280 so here again we're beginning to see a flattening out despite our best efforts."

Still, old threats persist.

"Before we'd even cleared May of this year we'd already had two shot loons and a lead poisoned loon. To put that into context about 2% of our adult loons that we find dead in any given year are dead because they've been shot but about 49% are dead because they swallowed a lead sinker or lead headed fishing jig."

Though new laws will soon prohibit all lead fishing gear, Vogel says the remnant culture of dusty tackle boxes could impact loons for decades.

And there are new problems. Increasing use of the lakes, shoreline development.

"And loons are also a northern species so when we look at the impending climate change, what we're expecting is hotter days and that spells trouble for loons. So I think the loons are going to be the poster child for climate change in New Hampshire."

Melissa Leszik steers us around the jagged, unfinished puzzle of the lake. We pass tiny islands and settle toward a grass edged bay tipped with pink flowers.

"Oh there we go. Two loons just to the left of the flag."

Credit Sean Hurley
The loons in the bay.

Black necks and the bright ping of red eyes, the half sunk birds regard us. Though loons have been around some 20 to 30 million years, Vogel says our understanding of them remains slight.

"So a question as simple as how long do loons live?  I don't know. Nobody knows.  Our best guess is somewhere between 20 and 30 years."

We may not much about them, but Melissa Leszik knows why we like them.

"The sound of the loons is really haunting.  I think what people are drawn to most is the wail."

Popularity aside, Harry Vogel says there's a practical reason for us to care about the birds. 

"Loons are really a sentinel of environmental quality. They're an indicator of the health of our lakes and ponds."

Shortly after our visit to the lake and following the loon census, Vogel calls me with some preliminary numbers.

"This is hot off the press. So this year we were at 297 territorial pairs of loons.  Just over 200 nesting pairs. 197 chicks hatched and 147 chicks surviving."

Good news, according to Vogel, but also a product of hard work.  The LPC this year put out a record number of nesting rafts and rope lines.  In other words, a lot of effort with only marginal gain.

From a movie poster...to a poster child. Where once the loons had only a cinematic grip on the public imagination, now their welfare reflects our own.  

Sean Hurley lives in Thornton with his wife Lois and his son Sam. An award-winning playwright and radio journalist, his fictional “Atoms, Motion & the Void” podcast has aired nationally on NPR and Sirius & XM Satellite radio. When he isn't writing stories or performing on stage, he likes to run in the White Mountains. He can be reached at shurley@nhpr.org.

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