Pulling North America’s Loons Back from the Brink

Restoring a national icon takes luck, patience, and more than a little guile. The backing of a billionaire helps quite a bit, too.

Under a gray sky on the eastern border of Grand Teton National Park, Arizona Lake looks like slate in the deep parts, like weak tea in the shallows, where the trap waits.

Onshore a clutch of scientists huddles behind camouflage netting as a small loudspeaker blares loon calls. It’s a challenge meant to inspire a bird to battle and, soon enough, a male Common Loon drifts from the distant reeds to the middle of the lake. He does a chest-puffing penguin dance, warning the noisy plastic decoy off his turf. Canada Geese arrive in a raucous vee, but the agitated target remains out of range.

Then somebody twists a dial and the loudspeaker blasts a new mix of loon songs—yodels and wails and tremolos—and this does the trick. The male, nearly the size of a Canada Goose, approaches within 50 feet, then 30, still wary. He paddles and dives, taunting his faux rival as he floats just inches from the edge of the mist net planted below the imposter. He isn’t happy, and he says so. Louder than a bugling elk, as brassy as a car horn, he yodels 12 times in a row, then follows up with an odd sneeze-like noise.

The five scientists behind the camouflage hold their breath, ignore their cramping legs, and silently urge the loon: Just swim over the net already. He’s one of only a handful of breeding loons in the entire state, and they want to get their hands on him temporarily to band him and take biological samples that will shed light on his health and maybe even whether climate change is taking a toll. But today they’re out of luck. The loon’s caution trumps his rage. He steers clear of the trap.

An hour or so to the south, on the other side of Jackson, Wyoming, in the eye-popping valley carved by the Hoback River, Joe Ricketts lives in a sprawling log house on a property he discovered years ago during a snowmobiling trip. Ricketts, a self-made billionaire who founded the online brokerage TD Ameritrade, is known for spending millions to back conservative political causes, mostly through a Super PAC he calls the Ending Spending Action Fund (the group dropped $10 million supporting Mitt Romney alone in 2012). Now he’s set his philanthropic sights on conserving loons, not just at Arizona Lake but throughout the northern United States. The Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent might seem an unlikely source for a $6.5 million donation for bird conservation, but he says he sees no contradiction between conservatism and environmentalism. And the slow pace of government conservation projects and the shrinking budgets of wildlife agencies leave him concerned. “Conservation,” says the businessman, “is everybody’s business.”

Ricketts’s interest in water birds began years ago with Trumpeter Swans. He works with the Wyoming Wetlands Society, which raises cygnets on ponds on his 1,300-acre ranch to boost native populations elsewhere. He became curious about Common Loons on a fishing trip to northern Saskatchewan several years ago. The abundance of loons there made him realize how rare they were in Wyoming, where today only 14 breeding pairs can be documented, down from 26 a couple of decades ago. Ricketts wants to bring them back to the Hoback Valley, which is part of their historic range. “They’re beautiful, and they have that haunting call,” he says. “I thought it would be nice to do something to help recovery in northwest Wyoming.”

There are still about 650,000 Common Loons—the vast majority are found in Canada—but populations have dipped overall in the past two decades. There’s no single culprit. Mercury poisoning, largely from coal power-plant emissions, has been shown to reduce fledging success by 40 percent. The lingering effects of acid rain have reduced the populations of the fish loons eat. The birds suffer from lead poisoning from ingesting lead sinkers and jigs used by anglers. Botulism outbreaks in the Great Lakes have killed 40,000 loons in the past decade. And oil spills kill and weaken birds exposed to slicks.

Ricketts’s host at the fishing camp introduced him to longtime loon field biologist Jeff Fair, who connected him with David Evers. Evers has studied loons for 30 years and is executive director of the Maine-based Biodiversity Research Institute; he’d wanted to pinpoint the reasons for recent declines and try to restore the birds to places they had disappeared from, but funding was sparse—at least until Ricketts came along. But instead of focusing solely on his own backyard, Ricketts ponied up enough to fund research from Wyoming to Maine. “David gave me the sales pitch for the whole country,” he says. The gift means he might have loons on his ranch someday, but it could also mean a lot more. “Undertaking translocation experiments with loons now, before their breeding range dwindles further,” says Fair, “represents an attempt to develop a restoration protocol for the birds before a crisis hits the species.”

Restore the Loon launched in October 2013. The five-year project aims to make the Common Loon even more common by mapping the bird’s distribution, digging deeper into what’s causing declines, finding and protecting good habitat that lacks loons today, and trying to translocate chicks—something that, until recently, nobody had done before. “Loons are homebodies,” says Evers. “The young move on average about 13 miles from natal lake areas. So to regain parts of loon range, you either have to wait a long, long time, or jump-start it.”

Loons spend half their long lives (up to 30 years) in freshwater and half in saltwater. Their wings don’t provide much lift for their heavy, dense bodies, so they need long runways—at least 20 acres of water—to get up enough speed for takeoff. They can’t glide, so they have to shoulder through every inch of their migrations (the Gulf of Mexico to Minnesota or central Canada is no easy slog) at up to 9,000-foot elevations. The chicks somehow find their way, alone, to coastal waters (a special gland allows them to filter the salt from the seawater they swallow, then snort it out). After two and a half years at sea the young find their way back to within a few miles of their natal ponds.

But loons aren’t just homebodies, they’re violently territorial homebodies. These serial monogamists fiercely protect their breeding grounds, only to abandon both mate and offspring when ice starts to rime the pond. By age six they’re ready to breed—and that means war. Males fight males and females fight females, battering one another with their wings and even torpedoing up from the depths to drive a beak into a challenger’s breast. The winners pair up and breed; the losers, if they survive, scatter, rarely producing chicks.

Two Loons_JF15

In his translocation work, Evers is counting on instinct to pull the birds back to the areas where they fledged rather than where they were hatched. The approach has worked with other species, including Trumpeter Swans and Bald Eagles. But nobody had attempted it with loons until this past summer, when Evers captured, banded, and moved five chicks 300 miles south in Minnesota. His team had scoped out hundreds of potential lakes near the Twin Cities and found that about 10 percent had the necessary clear water, healthy fish populations, and good shoreline integrity. “This was a core part of the loon population at one time, and the habitat is still there and healthy,” says Evers. “Loons may even stop over there during migration, but their site fidelity is so strong they keep moving.” The relocated birds fledged; Evers will now have to wait three years to see if they return and the gamble pays off. In the meantime, he’s placing more bets, gearing up to move chicks to loon-less lakes in Massachusetts in 2015 and Wyoming in 2017.

As he did in Minnesota, Evers will work closely with state biologists on those projects. For their part, the state agencies dealing with strapped budgets welcome the collaboration. “Minnesota wouldn’t be able to get funding for this kind of project, and it’s their state bird,” says Evers. “Joe Ricketts is making that happen.”

The work could benefit much more than loons, says Doug Brimeyer of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, because the bird is an indicator of aquatic health. When contaminants threaten lakes—whether it’s heavy metals or fertilizer-laced runoff from lawns—the damage often shows up first in the local loon population. “Lots of times, water quality has degraded and we don’t know about it,” Evers says. “But the loons know.”

On top of all of the assaults loons now endure is the looming threat of global warming. “There’s very little known about the specific impacts of climate change on loons,” says Evers—from warmer water temperatures to changing fish populations to physiological responses. “We’ve just started investigating some of these questions.”

This past summer, for instance, researchers began looking for heat-stress hormones in the blood samples they were taking from the loons they captured—a new addition to the drill they’ve got down pat. When they actually catch the birds, that is. Had the Arizona Lake bird been netted, it would’ve received the same treatment as the 135 loons the team snared last year, from British Columbia to Maine: Researchers draw blood and pluck a couple feathers, for genetic and health analysis; weigh and measure the bird; and attach four leg bands—an aluminum one with an ID number, and three brightly colored plastic ones arranged in unique patterns easily visible from a distance. That way they can tell which birds are pairing up at a given lake without the considerable hassle of retrapping them. Some birds also get a geolocator that reveals, when the bird is recaptured, where it spent the winter.

Evers’s team is still waiting for stress hormone results. Their findings could help generate better predictions for how loons will fare as temperatures continue to rise. Audubon’s climate report, released last September, projects that the Common Loon’s breeding grounds will shift north out of the United States by the end of the century. That forecast was based on 17 climate variables; incorporating the physiological and habitat data that Evers’s team is gathering into Audubon’s climate model will provide a clearer window into the future, and offer a better idea of what it will take in the long term to conserve the iconic species.

After the failure at Arizona Lake, Evers’s crew headed back to Jackson, where they regrouped over burgers and beers. They were on the job early the next day at the aptly named Loon Lake. The decoys and recorded calls worked this time, and an adult bird, keyed up for a dance-off to drive away his foe, entered the trap. A technician leapt from behind the camouflage netting and yelled “Dive!” The bird did exactly that, entangling itself in the mist net below. (He could’ve yelled anything—the goal was to startle the bird into attempting an underwater escape.)

Fifteen minutes later the loon, now with leg bands and short a couple cubic centimeters of blood, swam away, free to tend its nest, to fish, to sing.

At that pond and at thousands of others in loon country, when the wind calms and the stars pop, the birds open their throats. They wail like coyotes to locate a mate, yodel and emit the kooky laugh that warns off intruding birds, or coo the small hoots of family members having a chat.

For a loon, it’s all part of the business of breeding and rearing. To human ears, it’s magic. And if Joe Ricketts and David Evers have their way, the enchanting calls of the Common Loon will spread throughout the north and play on for generations to come.