The aluminum fishing boat slides through the inky waters of Ingham Pond just after midnight, as the people on board remain absolutely silent.
Armed with a spotlight, a fishing net, bug spray, and patience, they are in central Maine in pursuit of loons, a bird whose striking black-and-white plumage and haunting cries have long made it a beloved wilderness icon for Maine and other northern locales.
But despite their stature, loons are not well understood, and they’re under pressure. They’re vulnerable to lead poisoning, boat strikes, habitat loss, toxic PFAS, mercury, flooded nests, and more, in addition to natural predators such as bald eagles and snapping turtles.
Wildlife researchers in Maine want to learn more about loons and the hazards they face. Biologists are taking steps to monitor the health of loon populations, including marking individual birds with colorful leg bands to create a unique identifier that can be seen when they are swimming and preening.
Two Colby students, Brynne Robbins ’26 and Kate Jaffee ’25, are helping this effort. They’re spending the summer as interns for the Belgrade Lakes Association’s Loon Preservation Project, where they are observing nesting behavior, monitoring chicks, and helping band loons, among other responsibilities.
They do most of their work in the daytime. Bird banding, though, happens at night.
A dramatic night
Lee Attix, founder and director of Loon Conservation Associates, slowly piloted the boat across the pond in Mount Vernon toward a family of loons, who called softly in the night as a beaver slapped the water with its tail.
“There’s one,” whispered Chris Persico, a wildlife biologist with Portland-based Biodiversity Research Institute, whistling softly to the loon. Stunned by the spotlight, the loon paddled in place as the boat approached. Then Persico grabbed the long-handled net and quickly scooped the splashing, protesting bird into the boat.
The loon’s weeks-old chick also got scooped into the boat so it wouldn’t be alone on the lake while the researchers banded, weighed, and took samples of blood and feathers from its parent.
Robbins, an environmental policy and government double major, cradled the adult loon, its head carefully swaddled in a towel and held under her arm to neutralize its sharp beak. Jaffee, an environmental science major, kept a protective grasp on the chick, which was big enough to peck at but not hurt them.
At least, not much.
“Ow! We’re just trying to help you,” Jaffee said as the bird grabbed their finger and held on. “It hurts when he pecks repeatedly in the same place, but the biting doesn’t really bother me. He’s not that strong yet, thank goodness. I honestly respect that he’s doing his best. I mean, he’s a survivor.”
Top of the food chain
That’s the hope—that all the loon chicks on the Belgrade Lakes will be survivors. But it’s not a given. Loons in Great and Long ponds have had a poor record of successfully nesting, hatching, and fledging chicks. Although the lakes are quite large, covering thousands of acres, each consistently has only three to six successful nests each year.
For five summers, Attix has been working with the Belgrade Lakes Association to try to figure out why the lakes have such low loon productivity. This year, he reached out to Oak Professor of Biology Catherine Bevier to see if the College was interested in establishing an internship program to help with the project.
She didn’t hesitate before saying yes.
“Loons are at the top of a food chain in a lake ecosystem. They’re eating the fish and everything else. They’re a good indicator of lake health,” Bevier said, adding that Attix’s research also has strong elements of citizen science. “Lee’s goal is to educate and engage the local community so that after five years they’ll take it on themselves to go out and do the surveys every week.”
Bevier worked with Gail Carlson, an assistant professor of environmental studies and the director of the Buck Lab for Climate and Environment, to set up and fund the internship. The lab, funded by Trustee Sandy Buck ’78 and Sissy Buck, supports student and faculty research, experiential learning opportunities, student internships, and more that have to do with climate change and other environmental issues. The loon project seemed well within the wheelhouse.
“One of my major tasks is to make connections with people in the community and establish these partnerships that can lead to student internships, research projects, or some other form of engagement,” Carlson said. “So when Lee and Cathy reached out, I said absolutely.”
The lab’s financial support can make internships possible for students who ordinarily would need to find a paying job over summer break, and that benefits everyone, she said. “It really is an equity thing.”
‘The most beautiful birds’
It doesn’t take long before it’s obvious that Robbins and Jaffee are thrilled about the chance to spend their days—and nights—on lakes, streams, and ponds rather than in a classroom or office.
Carlson sounded enthusiastic about the experiences of Robbins and Jaffee monitoring the loons in the Belgrade Lakes. They’re both new to “hardcore” environmental monitoring and research, she said, but that’s not slowing them down. “They’re absolutely up for the challenge and very excited about it.”
Robbins grew up on a pond in Vienna, Maine, in a nature-oriented family and learned to love lakes from an early age. Last summer, she worked on an invasive milfoil eradication project, and after graduation she would like to work in marine or aquatic management policy or environmental law.
Although this summer’s weather has proved challenging for fieldwork, thanks to a very rainy June and a hot, humid July, she has been grateful for the chance to roam around the lakes in kayaks and motorboats looking for loons.
“Learning more about these birds that I’ve been seeing on lakes my entire life has been incredible,” Robbins said, adding that the loon-banding nights have been a highlight. “I mean, how many people get the opportunity to actually hold a loon? Loon banding is crazy and tiring but really fun.”
Jaffee, from the New York City suburbs, is an animal lover who would like to work in field conservation, though likely with reptiles or amphibians rather than birds. But they have a fondness for loons all the same.
“I love loons—I always have,” they said. “I think they’re the most beautiful birds that we have in this country.”
Black and white
On a daytime loon monitoring excursion, Robbins and Jaffee used binoculars to watch for the loon pairs they were tracking, searching for the telltale glint of color on their legs that indicated they were banded birds. They also searched for the small brown chicks that never strayed too far from their parents.
Loons are territorial, they said, and lay two eggs in May or June in nests that are sited very close to the water. At the end of the summer, the birds leave to overwinter on the Maine coast, with all but the juvenile birds returning in the spring to start the process over again.
Though just about everyone can identify a loon by appearance or call, the birds still have their secrets. Through monitoring projects like this one, researchers are learning more all the time, including how long they can live in the wild (35 years and counting) and whether they truly mate for life (they do not). They’ve also learned the extent to which loons are a threat to other loons. Birds die in violent battles over territory, and chicks can be killed by other adults or even their siblings.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” Attix said. “I learn something new every day that I’m out. I’ve become fond of saying that the only thing black and white about loons is their plumage.”
Drama in the graveyard
On the night-banding excursion, the lake was shrouded in an air of mystery. The crew left the boat launch as the sun was setting, in a dusk illuminated by the hazy smoke from faraway Canadian wildfires. Robbins and Jaffee shared bug repellent and donned plastic ponchos to guard against loon excrement as they moved toward the first location: the Graveyard, named for the boulders that jut through the surface of the water and create a hazard for boaters.
That’s where they had discovered two new chicks the previous week, brown balls of fluff so small they could only have been a day or two old. That day, the researchers erupted with joy as they took in the news the nest had been doubly successful.
“Awesome! Awesome,” exclaimed Dick Greenan, chair of the lake association’s Loon Preservation Project. For him and many other lake residents, the success of the loons is personal, which is why the project is so important.
“They’re so sweet,” Robbins had said as she peered through the binoculars. “Little babies.”
A week later, the spruce trees made a scrim of lace against the deepening twilight, and the wails and tremolos of loon calls echoed across the water. A barred owl hooted as Attix killed the boat’s motor, waiting for darkness and the opportunity to catch the unbanded adult loons. But only one chick was paddling behind its parent.
The other had been lost, though exactly how will likely never be known.
As Persico and Attix banded the mother and father, giving them their own number and color combinations, they worked quickly to take blood and feather samples, releasing the birds back into the cool water before they got dangerously warm.
As the students cradled the surviving chick, still too small to band, they marveled at its softness.
“One day, we’ll come back for you,” Jaffee promised.
Attix said he loves having the Colby students take part in the loon conservation project. Their sharp eyes had found a banded bird that had been thought to have been lost, and their passion for the work was genuine, he said.
“I’m pretty excited about this collaboration with Colby and the internships because it’s a chance to expose young people to loon biology and loon research at an impressionable time of their life,” Attix said. “And we need more young people getting involved in environmental causes and wildlife.”