To Catch A Loon

In late May Audubon member Jim Morris reported that a Common Loon had appeared on a tiny stormwater retention pond located between capturing a loonShaw's supermarket and Friendly's restaurant at Tafts Corner in Williston. For the next few months this loon attracted the attention of hundreds of observers, including representatives of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. The hope was that the bird would be able to leave the pond on its own; but no, it seemed to be perfectly content to stay put, subsisting on the healthy goldfish population swimming in the pond. Unfortunately, this loon was stuck.

captured loonEnter Eric Hanson, the Vermont Center for Ecostudies expert on Vermont's loons and the leader of the Loon Recovery Project in Vermont. On a warm July evening Eric, his summer intern Shannon Maes, and five volunteers (Jim Wallace, Carl Runge, Jim Morris (Yes, that Jim Morris), Maeve Kim, and Bruce MacPherson) gathered to plot the capture and release of this imprisoned creature. This proved to be no easy task. The loon was skittish, diving at every opportunity, and not necessarily a willing participant in this caper. But Eric had a plan-in fact, two plans. Plan A involved launching a 12 foot aluminum boat on this little pond, powered by a small electric motor. Using a one million candlepower spotlight to "freeze" the bird and a taped loon call to attract her attention, Eric planned to approach the loon carefully and scoop her up in an oversized fish net. Easier said than done. Plan B involved stretching a gill net, provided by VT F&W across the pond, trapping the bird in the folds of the net. Really!

As darkness fell, we gathered the equipment for this improbable adventure at the edge of the pond. After launching the boat, Jim Wallace steered toward the loon, Shannon held the spotlight, and Eric turned on a recording of a yodeling loon, the male territorial call. The rest of us held our collective breath. At first the loon was leery, but in a few minutes she became interested in the intruder's call and allowed the boat to approach her. In a moment-swoosh-it was over. The loon was engulfed in the net and was swiftly transferred to a padded cardboard box for safekeeping.

Onshore, Eric carefully collected basic data about the bird, determining that she was somewhat smaller than most Lake Champlain loons. Shannon held the bird's beak, while Maeve held the rest of the bird securely. Eric surmised that she might be a vagrant headed for Quebec based on her small size. While all this activity was taking place Gail Osherenko filmed the action. Gail's video now appears on her blog at http://www.vermontloonblog.wordpress.com. The rest of us looked on in awe.

In a few minutes this operation was over. The loon was placed securely back in her box for transport to Lake Champlain. Later that night she was released safely and successfully at the Burlington waterfront.

You can learn more about this adventure by visiting the Vermont Center for Ecostudies website at http://www.vtecostudies.org/. Thanks to Carl Runge for providing a photo of the captured loon.