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Scientists Want To Bring Loons Back To Massachusetts

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Loons are thriving on lakes and ponds in much of New England, apart from Massachusetts. Thanks to hunting and shoreline development, loons abandoned Massachusetts for almost a century, sacrificing a large part of their natural range. That is changing now with the help of a project that captures young chicks in Maine, brings them south and convinces them that Massachusetts is their new home. From Maine Public Radio, Susan Sharon starts off our story.

SUSAN SHARON, BYLINE: On a small lake in Raymond, Maine, cabin lights are blinking on, and the smell of dinnertime barbecue is in the air. As if on cue, a pair of loons announce their presence to an approaching motorboat.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOON TREMOLO)

SHARON: Lucas Savoy, a wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Research Institute, has piloted the boat to the north end of the lake. He and several volunteers have come in search of a 6-week-old loon chick.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOON WAILING)

LUCAS SAVOY: We only take one chick from a two-chick brood. If there was a single brood, we wouldn't take that 'cause that would be more disruptive to a parent or a loon parent if they lost all of their chicks.

SHARON: For nonscientists, there's more than a twinge of sadness at separating loon families. But Savoy and others at the institute are focused on the greater goal. Still, capturing them is no easy feat. Loons are elusive. They have excellent vision, which is why the team likes to locate the parents and the chick before the sun goes down, maintain a little bit of distance and then move in quietly once it gets dark. Using a spotlight, one person tries to disorient the birds, while another maneuvers a long-handled net.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOON WAILING)

SHARON: With a quick scoop, a chick is in the boat and flailing about. Not yet sprouting the distinctive black-and-white plumage of its parents, it's about the size of a large duck.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You just have to wait him out here.

SHARON: Once onshore, it's examined by a vet, put in a special container and driven south in an air-conditioned truck, where WBUR's Miriam Wasser picks up the story.

MIRIAM WASSER, BYLINE: After crossing two state lines, the young loon ends up at the Assawompset Pond Complex, a series of freshwater reservoirs and ponds in southeastern Massachusetts. The chick is brought to a partially submerged pen, where it will live until it's about 10 weeks old and showing signs that it's ready to fly.

DAVE EVERS: They get to that point where they want to fledge. They want to start testing their wings.

WASSER: This is Dave Evers. He's the executive director of the Biodiversity Research Institute and one of the country's leading loon experts. He says releasing the chicks right before they can fly is the key to getting them to come back to Massachusetts.

EVERS: When they leave the lakes here, they probably look down. This is where I'm at. And that's what gets imprinted on their brains. Like, this is the place to come back. This is home.

WASSER: Loons return to the same lake or pond every spring, even if there's good habitat nearby.

EVERS: It would take decades, I think, for loons to get here on their own. So this is a way to jumpstart this population.

WASSER: But first, the chicks have to survive in captivity. And as Evers often says, there's a reason you don't see loons in a zoo. Raising young loons has involved a lot of trial and error. Take feeding. In the early days of the project, the team struggled just to get the birds to eat. They'd put live fish into the pen a few times a day, but the loons wouldn't dive for them.

At some point, they had what Evers calls an aha moment. They realized that in the wild, when adult loons bring their chicks fish, they slap them on the surface of the water to get the chicks' attention and signal that it's time to eat. By pouring fish through a PVC pipe into the pen, the team found that they could make a slapping sound and get the birds to feed.

This is the first time a project like this has been attempted with loons, and it's already showing signs of success. Several birds that were translocated a few years ago have returned to Massachusetts. And this summer, one of them had a chick.

Just after sunrise on a foggy November morning, the institute's Lucas Savoy wades into a lake, cradling one of the captive chicks. He hands the bird to a local volunteer who places it in the water.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOON WAILING)

WASSER: She lets go, and the loon begins to swim away.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOON WAILING)

SAVOY: It feels really good to let them go and to know that they have a much bigger area now here.

WASSER: The chick will hang out on this pond, feeding and perfecting its flying skills, for a few more weeks before heading to the ocean for the winter.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOON WAILING)

WASSER: And if everything goes according to plan, she will return to this spot in a couple of years to have chicks of her own.

For NPR News, I'm Miriam Wasser in Massachusetts.

SHARON: And I'm Susan Sharon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.