Nature Talks - pic1

It’s common to hear loons before you see them, but when you do spot them, they’re pretty easy to identify with their dark heads, bright red eyes and white spotted pattern on the rest of their bodies.

LOONS HAVE LURKED around in my life since I was a kid going to my grandparents’ camp in Parsonsfield, Maine. There was a little dock where my grandfather kept his motorboat and from which my brother and I would catch and release sunfish. Late in the evenings, I would sit on the dock and wait. I remember more often than not being rewarded with the call of a loon. Sometimes I could see it a ways off the end of the dock, sometimes not, but it didn’t matter. It was easy to hear its echoing cry wrap the lake with lonesomeness.

As sad as that cry sounds — which actually is said to be their attempt to regain contact with a mate — their vocalization while flying is almost the opposite in its humorousness. There is a small lake in our town and our property almost reaches its shore. At least one pair, sometimes two, call the lake home. We are treated each year — from boats, from various beaches, or from the kitchen window of the homes along the lake — to adult loons sometimes with their young. They occasionally pop up not far from me while I am kayaking. The frequency with which this happens makes me wonder if they show up because they are feeling defensive about this long red thing in their territory or because they are simply as curious about me as I am about them. I suspect it is a mix of the two.

To get to the small lake, loons often fly over our house. While their mournful call while swimming seems to be calling out for company, their funny googling sound while flying seems more to say “I’m coming, I’m coming.” It always makes me smile, but no more so when they first return from the coast in the spring. It’s one of the firsts of the year that signifies that the lake is clear and winter is truly behind us.

In winter, I often see loons along the coast where they head to open water. Although impressively large, they are not as strikingly colored in winter. The black-and-white pattern of an adult loon in a lake on a summer morning is one of those remarkable delights that nature dishes out. The artist Charlie Harper totally got it when he drew his geometric-centric version of the loon, a print of which hangs in my house.

I recently took a cruise on the iconic M/S Mount Washington. Believe it or not, it was for a work-related purpose. Once our work was over, my colleagues and I went out on deck to enjoy the sunny day and the remainder of the cruise on Lake Winnipesaukee. Within five minutes, we had spotted a loon. And perhaps 10 minutes later, we saw two more. I don’t think I have ever been on the “Big Lake” when I didn’t see a loon.

Despite what seems like a plentiful population, loons are, in fact, a threatened species in New Hampshire. The Loon Preservation Committee (LPC) was created in 1975 with a mission to address a dramatic decline in the New Hampshire loon population. Housed at The Loon Center in Moultonborough, the LPC is both active and educational. Threats to the loon are the common ones threatening our environment in general and the creatures whose homes are affected: loss of habitat, insensitive recreational use of lakes and toxins that are polluting groundwater and, ultimately, lakes.

Loons have a characteristic that can increase the threat to their ability to raise young: their feet are disproportionately large, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to walk on land. Because of that, they make their nests right on the shores of lakes, often on little islands and protected inlets. Insensitivity to nesting loons can cause their nests to wash out or even get washed away by boaters who do not observe “no wake” zones. Overly curious nature lovers can ironically cause a nesting loon to be defensive and draw them away from nests, leaving eggs cold and therefore not hatchable.

The loon has another serious threat: lead fishing tackle. A loon that consumes lead tackle is a dead loon. Through initiatives of the Loon Preservation Committee, New Hampshire was the first in the nation to ban lead tackle sales and use, which went into effect on June 1, 2016. Along with N.H. Fish & Game and the N.H. Lakes Association, anglers are encouraged to clear their tackle boxes of lead sinkers and jigs with a buy-back program. Go to www.fishleadfree.org or visit The Loon Center ( www.loon.org) to find out details.

Loons are an iconic species in New Hampshire. But icon or not, every species deserves this kind of consideration. Biological diversity is a key element to maintaining the health of this planet — from the mosquito to the loon to the moose. It takes very little effort to swap out the lead tackle one uses to fish. And, as is often the case, a small effort by humankind offers big returns for the animals with whom we share Earth.

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Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. Email her at naturetalksck@gmail.com.