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NORTH COUNTRY AT WORK: Caring for and studying loons with Nina Schoch

October 11, 2019
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor (aflynn@lakeplacidnews.com) , Lake Placid News

SARANAC INN - No matter how hard Nina Schoch tried to answer questions about her job, she couldn't help but keep her eyes on Little Green Pond and the four loons that call it home.

"Sorry I keep looking," she said about turning her head to watch the loons, pointing to the water. "The birds are right there."

Schoch sat on a rock on the shore of Little Green Pond, about 13 miles north of her office at the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation in Saranac Lake. She's the executive director and spends most of her time sitting at the computer, writing articles and reports, developing exhibits, analyzing data and raising money for the center. This day, however, she enjoyed being in the field.

Article Photos

Nina Schoch looks at loons through a spotting scope at Little Green Pond.
(Provided photo — Andy Flynn)

It was 11 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 19, sunny and warm for this time of year. Schoch arrived with a spotting scope, digital camera and her dog, a blue-coated Australian cattle dog named Sapphire.

Little Green Pond is 68 acres - about half the size of Mirror Lake in the village of Lake Placid. It's in the Forest Preserve, owned by the state of New York, and is used by the nearby fish hatchery for brood stock. There's camping here, and paddling is allowed, but you can't fish here. Unless you're a loon.

Schoch began to talk about how she got involved with loon conservation, and then she grabbed her digital camera.

"Ah, it's bringing in a fish. Sorry," she said, followed by a number of camera bursts.

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Becoming a loon conservationist

Loon conservationist is a job Schoch grew into over the past 21 years. Other than being an administrator, she is part veterinarian, part wildlife photographer and part scientist. She loves animals so much, she rehabilitates wildlife as a hobby.

Schoch, 59, grew up in Virginia and southern California, earning a bachelor's degree at Cornell University, a master's degree at Humbolt State University in California and a degree at veterinary school in Virginia. She wanted to work in wildlife conservation, focusing on wildlife health.

"I wanted to be somewhere where I could paddle and cross-country ski without having to do a full day's drive to get there, so I moved up to the Adirondacks," Schoch said.

Schoch arrived in the Adirondacks in 1991. She spent some time working at Great Camp Sagamore in Raquette Lake and then joined the veterinary staff at the High Peaks Animal Hospital in Ray Brook.

In 1998, she volunteered for loon research, which led to coordinating the field work to band birds and get blood samples to assess mercury exposure. That research was led by the Biodiversity Research Institute, which used the common loon as an indicator species to assess the impact of mercury pollution in the waterways of North America.

In 2001, BRI partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society, The Wild Center, state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Audubon Society of New York to form the Adirondack Cooperative Loon Program. Schoch became the program director, expanding the research and developing educational and outreach programs. The program became part of the WCS Adirondack Program in 2007 and BRI in 2009, and the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation was incorporated in November 2016 and then opened an office in Saranac Lake.

"Previous to that, I was working out of my living room," Schoch said.

Schoch enjoys the field work the most. One of her favorite experiences came when she was handling the lights for bird banding at night, which they do in boats on the water.

"One time in a canoe on a nonmotorized lake and the two chicks were swimming underwater and they were chasing each other. It was like a game. So I could see them in the light chasing each other. And we waited until they were done playing before we caught them. It was so amazing to watch that because you don't normally get to see underwater."

Field work also includes the annual loon census, which is held on the third Saturday of July every year.

"From 8 to 9 in the morning, we try to have as many people on as many lakes in the Adirondacks and throughout New York as possible," Schoch said. "It gives us a snapshot of how the population is doing."

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How are loons doing?

Based on the research, Schoch said loons are one of the few bird species that have expanded in the Adirondack region in the last 20 to 30 years.

"Anecdotally, people tell me that back in the '70s and '60s and early '80s, they never saw loons on the lakes. And now I think we're coming close to carrying capacity in the Adirondacks."

Almost every territory that can be inhabited in the Adirondack Park has loons on it, Schoch said, adding that she's seeing more loon-to-loon interaction.

"Birds come in and try and take over territory and maybe kill chicks. Or the resident birds will kill the intruding bird or injure it, which we didn't see back in the '90s when we started this project."

Little Green Pond is a one-territory pond. A male and a female raised two chicks here this summer. Nearby Little Clear Pond is multi-territory pond that has three pairs of loons.

"They usually come back to the same lake for several years, if not decades," Schoch said. "Like on Little Clear next door, one of the females I've been watching since 2000, and she's been back every year. But she's had a couple of mates now."

Migration studies have shown that Adirondack loons spend their winters up and down the East Coast, from around Cape Cod to Maryland. One banded bird returned to the Adirondacks from North Carolina, and one banded Adirondack bird was sighted at Tampa Bay on the west coast of Florida.

"So it's pretty good news for loons," Schoch said.

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About loons

One of the perks of living and visiting the Adirondacks is the opportunity to not only watch loons but to listen to them.

Loons have four basic calls:?a wail, tremolo, yodel and hoot.

"The wail is a long-distance communication call, usually between adults because they want to let another adult know where they are," Schoch said. "Sometimes you hear it when both adults have been diving and one comes up and does a wail to find out where the other is. Or one is on a nest and wants to switch, and they wail and say, 'Come on, get me. Get me off the nest.'"

Another call is the tremolo, which sounds like a loon laughing. They make this call on the water and in flight.

"It's kind of a distress alarm call. They do that when they're a little bit alarmed about another loon coming too close or an eagle flying over or a boat too close to their chicks for their comfort."

Males make the yodel call, which sounds screechy.

"They do that to defend their territory. I usually hear it when they are fighting. They'll yodel at each other and penguin dance and things like that. I also hear it when an eagle is flying over or an airplane or a boat is too close for their comfort."

The last call is a hoot.

"They'll do that when they're just talking to each other, like I'm sure these birds out there are hooting. The chicks do a ... begging call and constantly will, if they're hungry, slam the parent around the neck and the beak and beg quite a bit."

Another fun fact about loons is that they take baths. They will spin around and splash in the water and flap their wings for half an hour to an hour. Schoch has received numerous calls about this behavior.

"People think they're caught in fishing line or something like that. They're like, 'He's caught and he's being dragged down and he's fighting.' And I'm like, 'No. He's taking a bath.' They'll go completely upside down and do that."

Schoch's staff has also documented loons going on shore to use a "latrine."

"They'll go up on shore and sometimes go to a nest site or a log or something and just use the loo and then go back on the water. (One staffer) sent an email (saying), 'Yes, Virginia, there is a loon loo.'"

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Threats to loons

Most threats to loons are caused by people, but they also have predators such as eagles and bears that raid nesting sites.

"One huge issue we're concerned about is climate change causing excessive rainfall early in the nesting season," Schoch said. "For example, this year a lot of birds nested really late. Usually they're hatching chicks in late June, mid to late June. And this year, a lot of birds are still hatching in late July."

Other threats come from people fishing. When fishing line is left behind, loons can get entangled. And loons sometimes catch fish that have tackle attached, and that can lead to lead poisoning.

"If they ingest the tackle, and if it's lead, the acids in their stomach break it down and they also have grit in their stomach to break down the fish bones," Schoch said. "And those will erode the fish and tackle. Even if the tackle is painted, the paint will erode off and they'll end up dying a very slow death of two to three weeks."

To help with this problem, the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation recently launched an Adirondack Gives crowdfunding campaign for its lead sinker buy-back program. Beginning next summer, anglers will be able to exchange one ounce or more of lead fishing tackle for a $10 voucher for non-toxic tackle at fishing tackle shops throughout the Adirondacks.

In New York, the sale of lead sinkers, one-half ounce or less, is banned, but people can still use lead fishing tackle.

"So we're trying to encourage people to not use lead tackle at all," Schoch said.

Another threat to loons is encroachment by curious paddlers or photographers. Schoch suggests that people keep their distance.

"If they approach you, that's fine. And if you're hearing them hoot and talk to each other, it's fun to watch them do that. But if you're following them and they're constantly moving away and tremoloing, then that's an indication that they're feeling upset and stressed."

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Future plans

Schoch eventually wants to facilitate wildlife rehabilitation in the Adirondacks on a bigger scale. She'd like to train others in wildlife health and conservation medicine.

"I'm working with some other people to hopefully develop a research training center in the park," she said, "and also be a resource for other rehabbers like the Adirondack (Wildlife) Refuge in Wilmington. So if they have a case that needs medical care, surgical care, that we'd be able to provide that and then send them back for further care."

Schoch is also working toward making the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation sustainable. Right now, fundraising a big part of her job. She relies on grants, donations, income from the office store and a small endowment at the Adirondack Foundation to pay the bills.

"My goal is to make both projects financially stable ... so that they can maintain themselves."

To learn more about the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation, visit www.adkloon.org.

 
 
 

 

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