A Dramatic Loon Rescue on Nubanusit Brook

August 7, 2021

Last month, Harris Center staff and volunteers worked with Loon Preservation Committee (LPC) biologists to rescue an adult loon that had been swept over the Skatutakee Lake dam in Harrisville during a period of very high water. The dramatic rescue spanned three days, and included several lengthy searches for the bird — amid increasingly unlikely odds of finding it alive — along Harris Center-conserved land on roaring Nubanusit Brook; a half-mile carryout through the woods once the loon was finally found; an overnight stay at Wings of the Dawn Wildlife Rehabilitation Center; and, finally, a release back to its waiting mate and chicks on Lake Skatutakee.

Over the Dam and Into the Brook

On July 14, Dave Birchenough and Judi Lang were walking on the footbridge near the Eastview Trail parking area when they spotted an unusual sight: an adult loon in the brook below. After multiple days of heavy rain, the lake level had increased, creating a current that had apparently washed the loon over the North Pond dam and down Nubansuit Brook. Loons are birds of open water, requiring up to a quarter-mile-long flatwater “runway” to gain enough speed to take flight — so this bird was going to need a helping hand to make its way back to Lake Skatutakee, where its mate was now caring for their two chicks all alone.

Dave and Judi called the LPC to report their sighting, and the LPC called Harris Center Science Director Brett Amy Thelen to ask if she could go to the site to await the arrival of LPC field biologists Elaina Badders and Mary Caffrey, who were both more than an hour away.

When Brett first arrived, the loon was resting in a calm patch of water along the bridge abutment, but making periodic forays into the swifter current in the center of Nubanusit Brook.
Videos courtesy of Russ Cobb.

Swept Away

Then, in an instant, the loon was swept under the bridge, around a bend in the brook, and out of sight.

Mary and Elaina arrived about twenty minutes later, life vests and large nets in hand. Mary, Elaina, Brett, and her husband, Russ Cobb, searched for the loon for nearly an hour, but it seemed increasingly improbable that they’d find the bird alive, as the brook was a torrent after the recent rains, laced with downed trees, boulders, and other hazards. When thunderstorms threatened, they called off the search.

One Last Look

The next afternoon, Brett and Russ returned for one last search. They walked nearly a half-mile along the shoreline of the still-raging and, in places, braided stream. They had just made the decision to give up and bushwhack their way back to the Eastview Trail when they heard the loon call. Following the direction of the sound, they found the loon, which had somehow survived its wild ride down the rapids and beached itself in a remote location on the shore.

Loons Are Heavy and Can Hurt You With Their Bills

Brett called the LPC, and LPC field biologist Mary Caffrey headed back for Rescue Attempt #2. After she arrived, Mary, Brett, and Russ hatched a quick plan for Mary to attempt to capture the loon by hand, with Russ waiting in the stream shallows with a net, just in case the bird made a break for it — which is exactly what it did. Russ caught the bird in the net, and Mary quickly assessed it for visible injuries before wrapping it in a towel for transport. Then began the walk back to the car, with Mary carrying the loon in her arms the whole way. Loons can weigh up to 15 pounds and have four-inch bills that can spear more than just fish, so it was a slow, careful walk.

To Henniker & Back Again…

Back at the cars, Mary, Brett, and Russ loaded the loon into a box and transported it to Maria Colby at Wings of the Dawn Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Henniker for an exam and observation. Though its feet were a bit scraped up from its ordeal, it miraculously had no major injuries or underlying problems, and it demonstrated that it was able to swim, dive, and catch fish. After a night of observation by Maria, the loon was banded on Friday morning and returned to its lake Friday afternoon, where it quickly reunited with its mate and chicks.

Postscript

The story doesn’t quite end there. Although the rescued loon was physically unharmed, the wild ride took a toll on him, and he distanced himself from his mate and chicks for more than a week. When one of the chicks started to show signs of neglect, the LPC made the decision to take it to a wildlife rehabilitation facility in Maine to be captive-reared. Thankfully, the remaining chick has continued to thrive, and the male loon — identifiable by the colored bands LPC biologists placed on his legs — eventually resumed parenting duties.

The average pair of New Hampshire loons fledges just one chick every other year, but loons can live upwards of 30 years — making rescues like this one a worthy, if complicated endeavor. Our heartfelt thanks and appreciation to the Loon Preservation Committee, Maria Colby at Wings of the Dawn, and the Harris Center staff and volunteers who gave this loon and its chicks a second chance.