MOUNT DESERT — Billy Helprin and Heidi Wueste were a bit nervous when they carefully released a rescued loon chick in Round Pond near the nest that they believed belonged to its parents last Tuesday.
If they had guessed wrong about which nest and family the chick belonged to, it likely would have been injured or killed by the adults protecting their territory.
“The chick sat alongside the canoe for a minute or so, not immediately knowing where to go,” Helprin said. “Shortly, though, it sped off for the vocalizing adult to the east of us, peeping along the way. The receiving adult lifted its right wing a bit, and the lucky chick crawled its way up to settle behind the parent’s neck. We knew we had made the right placement of this wayward little bird.”
The chick had been found only about two hours earlier on the Pretty Marsh road by a Connecticut woman who was driving by. Louise Brodman took the bird to Acadia Veterinary Hospital in Bar Harbor, where the staff got in touch with Ann Rivers at the Acadia Wildlife Foundation.
“Acadia Vet called me and said a woman had dropped off what she thought was a duck,” Rivers said. Back at her clinic, she examined and weighed the bird. It did not have any sign of injury.
“I checked to make sure that is was waterproof, which is pretty critical.” When Rivers gets a young animal at her clinic, she said, “The first questions I’m asking are, did it need to come in here, does it have parents, how can we hook it up?”
So she called Helprin and Wueste at the Somes-Meynell Wildlife Sanctuary in Somesville. They have a loon monitoring project where dozens of volunteers keep careful track of nesting pairs of the birds on Mount Desert Island ponds. “Rarely do we have such good information,” Rivers said, knowing exactly which nesting pair had had two chicks and was down to one.
“Heidi figured the chick probably came from Round Pond assuming that there was only one chick with the adults there, where we know there had been two very recently. She went to check, and fortunately the loons were in view from the put-in. There appeared to be only one chick. We all figured the best outcome would be a quick reuniting, but light was fading with clouds in the western sky at 7 p.m.,” Helprin said.
They picked up the bird from Rivers. “As we drove to Round Pond, the chick was pecking at the walls of the small box and squawking every minute or so,” Helprin said. “At the pond, we found the adults and one chick near the western shore. We launched the canoe with the peeping box getting louder.”
“The vocalizations were the coolest part,” Wueste said.
One adult ventured toward the canoe and came within 15 feet, Helprin said. The chick swam over to it and tucked under its wing, then climbed onto the parent’s back.
“I think it was hungry,” Wueste said. “It was pecking at the feathers on the parent’s neck. They started fishing right away while they still had light.”
“The other adult steamed across the pond towards the others with the sibling chick on its back,” Helprin said. “All four united in the middle of the pond and hung close together, hooting and fishing as the light continued to fade.”
How the chick ended up on the road remains a mystery. Loons can’t walk well, and chicks can’t walk at all, let alone up the steep bank above the wetlands up to the closest section of the Pretty Marsh Road. They stick with the parents all day while the parents fish because plenty of predators are around. When the adults are fishing underwater, though, chicks are vulnerable to attacks from birds because they can’t yet duck underwater themselves.
“They’re very devoted parents,” Rivers said, “It’s just there’s things they can’t guard against.”
“The fact that there were no marks or wounds on the chick at all leads me to speculate that the chick was picked up by a raven or crow by the bill, not the talons of an eagle or other raptor, and dropped in the roadway,” Helprin said.
Loons live a long time and have only one or two chicks per nesting pair per season, he said. Many don’t survive the 10-12 weeks to fledge. Eggs are vulnerable to predators on land (raccoons, mink, otter or skunks) and in the air (eagles, crows and ravens).
This year, 10 territorial pairs the group is watching on MDI have produced seven chicks.
It’s important for boaters not to disturb nests by getting too close. Those who enjoy freshwater fishing can make sure they have switched to nonlead fishing tackle, as lead poisoning is still the leading cause of death for loons in Maine.
The Somes-Meynell volunteers participate in an annual statewide loon count organized by Maine Audubon on July 16. They also host talks and other events.
Visit somesmeynell.org and acadiawildlife.org.