Wildlife Watch: Vermont's loon success story

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LAKE IROQUOIS, Vt. (WCAX) A Vermont wildlife biologist who has dedicated two decades to saving loons around the region last week received the Green Mountain Power Zetterstrom Environmental Award.

Courtesy: Bryan Pfeiffer

Our Erin Brown caught up Eric Hanson after the ceremony at Lake Iroquois to discuss what's next for the once-endangered birds.

Erin Brown: I'm here at Lake Iroquois with Eric Hanson. He's a biologist here in vermont, and he just received an environmental award for his work to save the once-endangered loon here in vermont. So, thank you Eric -- thanks for joining us. So, tell me a little about the award that you just received and how you're feeling.

Eric Hanson: It's great to be honored for 20 years of work. I've been working for the Vermont Center for Ecostudies and partnering with the Vermont Fisher and Wildlife Department trying to conserve the common loon, help them out. They were endangered up until 2005. Back in the '80s we were down less than 12 pairs -- seven nesting pairs in the state. And that slowly grew, but that's only in the last 20 years that the population has really taken off, including a new nesting pair at least relatively recently here on Lake Iroquois.

Erin Brown: Very nice. And I know you've been doing this work for about 21 years now. How exactly did you get started and how has that work progressed along the way?

Eric Hanson: Well in vermont they actually started it in the late '70s when they thought populations were low. So, they started inventorying what was going on, implemented some new conservation efforts. But they were learning, they didn't really know the biology of the bird as well that back then. So, it's really only in the last 25 years that we've focused on the managing for the water levels, prevent flooding of mass land owners, using nesting rafts and nest warning signs to keep disturbance down. Lots of education about lead tackle and fishing lines. Lead tackle is now-partly because of the loons. They banned sale and use of small sinkers. Nice to increase that someday but it's working out -- it's hopefully had an effect. So, it's kinda of gone from there. I came in in the late '90s and spent a previous five-years, six-years doing loon research out in the midwest. But I married a Vermonter -- that's what brought me here and found this job and kind of stuck with it and it just blossomed.

Erin Brown: Awesome. That's great to hear. And I know when you were receiving your award, you told the story about when the first loon popped back up here at Lake Iroquois. Can you walk us through that story again?

Eric Hanson: Yeah. We do an annual count in July every year. We try to hit 160, 170 lakes statewide. And probably about seven years ago, one showed up here which was a little bit of a surprise. We're kind of isolated from any other breeding lake in Vermont. They do use Lake Champlain, but no breeding that we know of currently. So, that kind of put it on the radar -- 'let's make sure we check Iroquois maybe more than just the annual count day.' And then a few years after that, maybe five years ago, we saw two birds. And that's the sign of -- do we have a pair? And that's when all the flags go up and we say, 'Hey, lets make sure we get at least three or four checks to that lake. Lets see if we can find some volunteers. And it ends up we had someone who would work with VEC -- the Vermont Center for Ecostudies -- prior. And he became a volunteer, started talking with his friends and neighbors around the lake. They started reporting loon sightings. And then three years ago someone found the bird sitting on shore on an island right where people like to be, and so we worked -- we got ahold of who that land owner was, talked with him. 'How do you use the island?' And it turns out he rents it and there's dogs. So, it took a lot of effort to try to protect the nest. And it worked, until the rainstorm came and flooded the nest. It happened again the year before, and last year. The pair decided to shift sites, but raccoons got that nest. And we really like to promote non-management -- you know, fewer signs, fewer rafts -- but in this case, there are a lot of people around and they were nesting on an island that's occupied by people, so we just put a raft in a nesting cove that's a little quieter. And they re-nested on that. Unfortunately it failed, but now those loons know where that raft is. Whether they'll go back to it in the next three or four weeks when they're looking... They're pairing up now -- just the other day. We're just hoping they will go for it because it's an easily protected out-of-the-way site and juts -- more likely to have success. So, we haven't had success yet, but again were hoping down the road.

Erin Brown: Definitely. I'm sure you'll get there. Alright, well do you have anything you want to add about the loon population or your work or the people you've worked with or anything like that?

Eric Hanson: It's one of those projects where anyone can get involved. If you like to boat and explore lakes in Vermont, I'm always looking for people to report-in loon activity. So, just go to the Vermont Center for Ecostudies website, look for the loon page and you can contact me there. And just thank the public for really helping make loon awareness and people respect of the species -- their nesting sites -- because that is really what has caused the population to do really well in Vermont now.