If you’re a loon on a cold northern lake, you need to know when it’s the right time to fly to open water on the ocean. For northeastern loons, that’s a short flight to the coast. However, staying too long could be deadly, as 10 adult loons discovered in January of this year when they overstayed their welcome on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee.

Due to frigid temperatures overnight, the open water on Lake Winnipesaukee quickly shrunk to the size of a home swimming pool. And, unlike ducks and geese, loons are large heavy birds that require 100 to 200 yards of open water to take flight. And it helps to have flight feathers!

Thanks to a group of Nordic ice skaters who discovered them, biologists with the Loon Preservation Committee who rescued them, VCA Capital Area Veterinary Emergency and Specialty (CAVES) that offered equipment, a vet and vet technicians to assess them, and wildlife rehabilitation experts at Wings of the Dawn who fed them back to health—the loons survived and were safely released to their saltwater winter home.

Staying on the water far too long

The ice on New Hampshire’s biggest lake froze almost at once when six inches of black ice set in overnight. That’s when Nordic skaters who were one mile out on this rare clear ice saw something odd on the surface of the ice—an open hole with 10 loons swimming around in it. They knew these birds shouldn’t be here. They were stuck and vulnerable to predators.

Sometimes loons will linger into the colder months and that’s when they can get into trouble. Because of their anatomy—they’re powerful divers with nearly solid bones—they can’t take off flying to avoid danger without vast open water.

“The loons have to work really hard to take flight, and usually that involves running across the surface of the water while flapping their wings the whole time,” said Caroline Hughes, outreach biologist with the Loon Preservation Committee located in Moultonborough, New Hampshire. “So when the ice comes in, and they don’t have a long enough runway, they can’t head to the ocean to overwinter. We expect to see loons getting stuck on the lakes more frequently as the climate warms.”

There’s an even bigger issue for the birds this late in the season called molting when the loons lose and regrow all their flight feathers. Usually this happens when they’re out on the ocean where they don’t need to go anywhere. But if they’re still on a lake that’s frozen over, they’re trapped.

“They're designed to swim, so they can't walk well,” Hughes said. “If any sort of predator—like an eagle—comes after them when they're up on the ice, they can't escape.”

Assessing the right time to rescue

The skaters logged the loons’ location coordinates that eventually reached John Cooley, a biologist with the Loon Preservation Committee. "It seemed like we were giving them the best chance for a good recovery the sooner we could get them to safety,” stated Cooley. “Within a moment of talking to the ice skater, I knew exactly what the story was,” Cooley said. “We swung into high gear.”

The next day, the lake was covered in snow so Cooley skied across the lake to check on the loons. “The loons were just hanging out there, and not getting much to eat,” he said. “The open water was above one of the deepest parts of the lake, so there were fish there, but we were immediately concerned that the loons might not be able to forage well. And it seemed likely that their health and body condition would decline rapidly.” 

Initially the Loon Preservation Committee came to rescue the loons with the local fire department for assistance. “We tried to rescue them that day, but there was too much open water,” said Cooley. “The following day, after a very cold night, our staff came back and we were able to rescue the 10 loons with a 15-foot opening in the ice.” 
“VCA CAVES staff bent over backward to help the loons. They gave us half the building to work on the loons—with three bays and technicians to help.”

Gill nets were the answer

“During this rescue, our staff checked the ice thickness around the opening to see if it was safe,” said Cooley. “Staff who were positioned on thin ice wore insulated cold-water rescue suits, carried ice picks and were attached to tethers for safety.”

To rescue the loons from their perilous situation, the team used 100-yard-long gill nets. There was definitely a learning curve for the team working with the nets. But eventually they carefully caught the loons one by one. 

“We started at noon and finished around 5 p.m. that day on the ice,” noted Hughes. “Some loons were easier to capture than others—and they were calling to one another during the rescue operation. To transport the loons off the lake, we used a Jon boat and two ice-fishing sleds to move the loons to shore.”

From the lake to triage

It took the group 20 minutes to transport the 10 loons in boxes from the lake to the Loon center where the staff banded the loons so they could match the birds with their blood-test results. 

The loons were then transferred to VCA CAVES in Concord around 10:45 p.m. for radiographs and more blood work. Maria Colby, who runs Wings of the Dawn Wildlife Rehabilitation Center and Bird Sanctuary located in Henniker, New Hampshire, was at CAVES awaiting the loons’ arrival.

Colby feels VCA CAVES Concord is phenomenal. “They gave us half the building to work on the loons—with three bays and technicians to help. CAVES staff has worked with me in wildlife emergencies in the past. I can’t thank them enough for continually opening up the hospital to wildlife. Whenever I take an animal in, they never say they’re too busy to help me.”

“VCA CAVES staff bent over backward to help the loons,” said Hughes. “We completed the radiographs and blood tests by midnight. The vet and vet techs on staff at CAVES gave us immediate feedback, helping us interpret the results. One of the staff members at CAVES even had a loon tattoo, which we loved!”

The big worry was lead in the loons’ blood, which happens due to swallowing fishing tackle. One loon did show a high lead level. 

VCA CAVES Christine Jackson, CVT, ER technician supervisor, said having the loons in the clinic was like any other day when they see exotics—only smellier! “Loons eat fish and thus their poo smells very fishy,” said Jackson. “Generally loons are not that difficult to manage if you know what you're doing. When they're healthy, the loons don’t want to be touched and you have to take great care to avoid their sharp bills and being hit by their large strong wings.”

Gaining strength at the wildlife rehabilitation center

At 2 a.m., the crew left VCA CAVES and headed to Colby’s Wings of the Dawn to rehabilitate the loons by getting them back in the water and feeding them. A lot!

Colby provided the adult loons with pools and plenty of food for the next two days. “I set up seven different pools at the center. The loons separated themselves in two groups, three in one group (I named them Larry, Curly and Moe!), and seven loons in the other group. The loons were very hungry, eating 30 pounds of shiners, used as ice-fishing bait. They fought with one another to get the fish, but fighting was a good sign that they were getting healthier.”

The loons were at the rehabilitation center gaining strength from Saturday night to Monday morning when Colby and volunteers from the Loon Preservation Committee released them into the ocean an hour away.

“Birds don’t do well in captivity, so we need to move them to their natural habitat as soon as possible,” stressed Colby. ”The loon folks met me at Odiorne Point State Park, a protected cove, in Rye, New Hampshire. Here we finished banding the loons and then set them free to swim out to the open ocean water. The cove helped them get their bearings in saltwater.”

Once banded, the loons were so excited to see freedom in the cove! They dove in the water immediately, swam about 30 yards underwater and made their way out of the cove to the vast ocean. The loons yodeled back thanks to their rescuers—they were vigorous and totally mobile in the water. 

“In the saltwater, the loons can regrow their flight feathers, eat and swim anywhere they’d like go,” concluded Hughes. “Now, they’re exactly where they should be!”