"Available: Snug floating-island homes on 18 scenic New Hampshire lakes. Cedar-log construction. Convenient locations on sheltered waters. Excellent security, privacy guaranteed. Good place to raise a family."
Catches? A few. The islands, contained by four cedar logs spiked together at the corners, measure just six feet square, and after a time afloat the interiors, packed with sod and compost, soften to a mire. In strong winds, they may rock. There's another catch—only common loons need apply.
According to Jeff Fair, director of the Loon Preservation Committee of the New Hampshire Audubon Society, artificial islands as nesting sites are helping stabilize a loon population that has declined drastically, not only in the Granite State but also throughout the Northeast.
"The islands," Fair says, "offer attractive nesting sites where natural ones no longer exist, where raccoon predation is a problem and on lakes subject to fluctuating water levels."
Shorefront developments have displaced the birds from many nesting sites. Raccoons, attracted to populated lakes by easy pickings at backyard garbage cans, also feast on loon eggs. In 1978 they caused more than 50% of all loon nesting failures in New Hampshire. Fair says no eggs on artificial islands, which were used earlier in Minnesota, have been lost to coons. And some of the loons' breeding lakes are siphoned for flood control or power generation, leaving nests that normally lie just above the waterline high and dry—and abandoned.
Formal efforts to halt the decline of resident loons in New Hampshire began in 1976, when concerned members of the state Audubon Society formed the LPC and hired several biologists to undertake a census.
Naturalists at the turn of the century had reported loons on every New Hampshire lake large enough to support them, about 200 lakes in all, according to Scott Sutcliffe, Jeff Fair's predecessor at the LPC and now executive director of the Long Island Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. Sutcliffe's surveys located nesting loons on only 34 lakes.
The findings confirmed what most observers already knew: The doleful cries of the loon—those maniacal-sounding wails and yells and yodels—had faded to a faint echo of what once had been heard. "...the wildest sound that is ever heard here..." wrote Thoreau when loons still visited Walden Pond. The Cree called them the "spirit of northern waters," but those waters in the birds' historic range across Connecticut, southern New York and Pennsylvania have long since been taken over for man's use. In 1977 the common loon was declared a threatened species in New Hampshire.
Fossil evidence suggests that the loon's superb adaptation to the aquatic environment was one of the first and most successful (until now) by one of the earliest of bird orders. Hopelessly inept on land, loons are peerless swimmers and divers, pursuing and overtaking fish to depths of 185 feet. Their takeoffs are gained after desperate, wing-flailing runs that may cover a quarter mile of lake surface, and their spectacular belly-flop landings—the effect is that of a nine-pound club arriving at 60 mph—tend to attract attention, too.
Even under the best of circumstances, loons reproduce sparingly, laying two eggs that require 28 days of undisturbed incubation. Those juveniles that survive a gantlet of natural predators spend two or three years on the ocean before returning to inland lakes to breed. It is believed that they mate for life and once they choose a nesting territory, come back to it year after year. Living long is the loons' best revenge: They are commonly thought to have breeding lives of 15 to 20 years.
To keep the loon's haunting voice sounding across New Hampshire waters, the LPC has campaigned up and down the state, urging lake users to allow the bird its needed privacy during nesting and chick rearing. The subject of countless slide shows, silhouetted on posters, its natural history detailed in pamphlets, the shy loon's celebrity is assured. An annual loon festival was begun in 1979, complete with a loon-calling contest. At the committee's headquarters in Meredith on Lake Winnipesaukee, you can buy loon T shirts, loon ashtrays, assorted loon gimcrackery—proceeds to support the cause. Ten thousand copies of a recording of loon calls have been sold. The recording was used extensively in the film On Golden Pond.
From numerous lakefront cottages, volunteer observers monitor active nests, protecting them from potential intruders with considerable zeal—sometimes with shotguns. Hatchings have been celebrated with champagne.
There are, however, still occasional incidents of clowns in motorboats chasing loons—two chicks were lost that way in July on Balch Pond—and even a case of nest robbing by a Massachusetts man who, when he was apprehended, said he planned to hatch the pilfered egg himself. Such acts are state and federal offenses with penalties of up to $1,000 and a year in jail.
The LPC launched its first artificial island in 1976 on Second Connecticut Lake, near the Canadian border. It sank. "It was made from red spruce," Sutcliffe says, "which was still green. After that, we used cedar."
Starting with five platforms in 1977 (on which were hatched two loon chicks), the LPC now manages 30 islands on 18 lakes. It's perhaps the most extensive use of artificial islands as loon nurseries, and the most successful, although success in encouraging loon reproduction is measured in small numbers.
Eight loons hatched from islands floated in 1978, seven the next year and 11 in 1980. Last summer's 30 rafts produced 16 chicks; only 12 survived but those dozen juveniles represented 24% of all surviving loon chicks in New Hampshire.
"What's most encouraging," Fair says, "is the rate of nesting success on the islands. In the whole state, it was 50%—84 nesting attempts were made, 42 succeeded. But on the islands, we saw 10 successful nests out of 13 attempts."
More than half of the artificial islands were unoccupied last season, but that doesn't daunt Fair or the volunteers who will help him place them again this spring, just after ice-out.
"The thing is snowballing," Fair reports. "Probably 10 people contacted me during the summer about putting out islands themselves. We provide instructions for building, locating and anchoring them. If a guy was just buying the materials and doing it himself, it would cost less than $50."
Even if none of those inquiries results in new islands, Fair expects to float at least 14 additional ones this year on the state's three largest lakes—Winnipesaukee, Umbagog and Squam. In Fair's view, these lakes clearly show the degree of the inhibiting effect of human activity on loon reproduction. Winnipesaukee, the largest and also the most developed, contributed just one juvenile last summer, while moderately developed Squam produced three. Umbagog, farther north and spilling over the border into Maine, remains largely undisturbed, although it is one of the breeding lakes drawn down to generate electricity; of eight chicks hatched on Umbagog, seven survived to join migrating adults in the fall.
Overall, 308 resident loons were observed in New Hampshire in 1981, 40 more than in 1980, and it was the first time in six years of surveys that the count exceeded 300.
Wilder lakes still provide the best odds for nesting success, but ample instances of loon chicks hatched and fledged close to restrained human activity give reason for optimism.
"The most obvious lesson to be learned from the artificial islands and the cooperation we've had from so many residents," Fair says, "is that the loon can coexist on the same lakes with human development. The loon doesn't require an untouched wilderness, just responsible human behavior."