Little Guy: Colo on the Maine Coast

Guest post by our friend and expert birder, AW.

COLO 1740 starts the next stage of life on Penobscot Bay on the Maine coast. / © Terry Heitz
COLO 1740 starts the next stage of life on Penobscot Bay on the Maine coast. / © Terry Heitz

What is your favorite bird? Perhaps there can be no answer. Birding is a passion, encompassing all species, with opportunities to appreciate many behaviors and much beauty. Hearing the flute-like song of a Veery is enchanting. Seeing Northern Flicker heads (with Michael Nesmith sideburns) protrude from a nesting cavity before daring to fledge surely seems comical. Witnessing a Merlin grab fast food on the fly is definitely shocking. These are only a few of the simple pleasures we chance to experience, and I myself don’t rank levels of joy in birding. Until now.

This lost loon I helped to rescue, referred to as “Little Guy,” has trumped all birding experiences for me. This bird will forever be my all-time favorite. But before you read any further, it’s time to let go of this name,” Little Guy.” Attaching a name to a wild animal connotes pet-status, or ownership. At the time of the rescue however, it seemed fitting to call this orphan by an endearing name, as a way to express the significance of the loon’s ordeal.  At Avian Haven, the chick has been designated by a more formal moniker: COLO 1740 Brighton VT. I will now refer to the loon as Colo.

Colo has literally outgrown the name, “Little Guy.” All traces of natal down are gone and the bird now sports sleek and crisp feathers in the first set of adult plumage. SPLENDID BEAUTY! When glancing at the updated pictures sent from Avian Haven, it’s hard to believe we are seeing the same loon. Please excuse the Grandma-like cliché, but: “They grow up so fast!”

Here is a recent email from Diane Winn of Avian Haven from September 7th:

She is quite the little pistol – as you can see, she still has some downy fuzz on her head, but she’s now quite waterproof and has become an accomplished diver. She’s in the company of another young loon with eye damage caused by an eagle grab; the prognosis for that one remains uncertain, but meanwhile, they are good companions. They share our large pool, and each day, we take them to a pond on the property for outdoor “enrichment sessions.”

And from a post of Facebook on September 10:

She is currently devouring about 25 capelin a day and is so excited about them that she practically jumps out of the pool when she sees us coming!

After the loon parents lost this chick, it has taken more than one village to raise it. The bird’s promising future is the result of a chain of actions spanning from Vermont to Maine. Visiting the North East Kingdom from Huntington, Vermont, I was lucky to have found Colo. VCE’s Loon Conservation Biologist Eric Hanson provided essential skills to best care for the loon. Eric passed the baton off by delivering Colo to rehabber Kappy Sprenger in Bridgton, Maine. Next, Kappy linked the responsibility from Eric to Avian Haven Directors, Marc Payne and Diane Winn. With their dedicated staff in Freedom, Maine, Colo’s return to a free and wild life (as an uncommon loon) has been ensured after six weeks of nurturing care.  May this wandering chick from Brighton, Vermont, have a bright future and a long, long life.

Within minutes of being released, COLO 1740 caught a crab for his/her first ocean snack. / © Terry Heitz
Within minutes of being released, COLO 1740 caught a crab for a first ocean snack. / © Terry Heitz

A final Facebook post from Avian Haven on September 29 lets us all say farewell:

Young Common Loon, released in Penobscot Bay on September 28, swam off with barely a glance back and explored the release cove extensively. We saw her take many long dives, surfacing from one with what looked like a clam in her beak. From another, she came up with a crab. Evidently she was enjoying a more varied menu than had been available at Avian Haven!

To end this blog series, which includes a progress report, I’ll share a poem I wrote years ago as a tribute to a beloved young friend.

The Loon

In beautiful, breeding plumage
Your devoted parents
Create you,
And from the moment of your being
They will remain
Committed to you,
Precious egg,
While you grow into yourself.

This precarious nest
In which you lay
On the edge of the shore
Clings with prayers of no flooding storms
That may cause hopes to drown.
For this is where you must be
While becoming you
Finding your place in the world.

Your loving parents
Are there for you always
Although you can only ride
Protected on their strong backs for a little while
Before you must fend for yourself,
Take the plunge,
Trust your wings,
Navigate by the stars.

Your heavy bones
Allow you to dive
Deep to the bottom of dark waters
Where you eventually find nourishment
But also the poisons
Of broken lures
Left unintentionally for you
Vulnerable in your innocence.

And one day, Autumn will be upon you
And instinct will have spoken.
And now you’ll know
You cannot stay
On this pond or in this place.
It’s time to migrate
To places unknown.
So, lift off this pond you call home
And pray that the water way
Is long enough
For you to gather the momentum
To lift up,
To the next adventure ahead.

And know….
I will always hear
Your beautiful song
Calling late in the night
Reaching out to me
Far in the distance.
I hear you and love you
Because distance
Never means you’re forgotten
And love never ends
But travels through time
No matter how far
Or long
Or difficult the journey.

Thank you for following this poster-child wayward loon’s story and please support wildlife programs in whatever way possible.

This post ©2015 by A. Wagner, birder, citizen scientist and educator. Used by permission. It also appears in a slightly different form, at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies blog.

The first chapter in our Little Guy mini-saga appeared on our blog August 21, 2015. The Rescue Update appeared August 28.
Another post by AW appears our blog: Expert birder pwned by 4-year old

Little Guy: Rescue Update

Guest post by our friend and expert birder, AW.

Imagine working a 1000-piece puzzle displaying a loon on a Vermont pond. First, you collect similar pieces of an image, like parts of the loon. You work these pieces to get a bigger whole, but for a while, it still remains unconnected to the frame. I call these “fascinators.” Eventually it all fits together.

Next, imagine the journeys of the rescued loon we’ve named “Little Guy” as that puzzle. Many pieces, however, are missing. We need an imagination filled with wonder to complete this puzzle, but here’s how a fascinator grows: It starts with Eric Hanson’s knowledge of the habits and habitats of loons. He predicted Little Guy’s journey began from Beecher Pond 12 to 24 hours prior to my discovery of the chick along a roadside on August 18th. Eric believes the loon traveled about a half mile through dense woods. How a chick, so awkward on land, could make such a challenging trek is a fantastic mystery!

The fascinator grows with the next journey to Maine and the next caregiver, Kappy Sprenger. Here is what she wrote about the care she could offer (8/22):

I’m transferring the VT chick to Avian Haven in Freedom, ME.  It needs more care than I can give it at this point.

The waterproofing is poor on all dark feathers. Remember how odd the down looked?   Not wet but sort of crinkled and bent?   Something dried on or coated it. I wonder if the chick surfaced in a slick from boat gas.   Yesterday we gave it a ‘light’ bath which didn’t help at all.   The chick also doesn’t eat as much or well as I think it should this many days here. Avian Haven can do lab work, X-rays, etc. and I’m sure will keep you appraised.

Glad you brought the bird to us.


The next pieces fit into place with Diane, from Avian Haven in Freedom, Maine (8/25):

Your loon chick is doing very well so far. As Kappy had noted, her waterproofing is not great, but she can dive, and it takes several hours for her back to get a little wet. She stays dry underneath, which is good. As of yesterday, she learned to get herself up on the pool haul-out, so we feel comfortable leaving her in the pool knowing that, when she feels she needs to be out, she can get out on her own. Rather than try a second bath, our plan is to see if she can get her back feathers into shape by preening.

She has become a voracious feeder, practically jumping out of the pool to grab fish out of someone’s hand as soon as the panel doors are opened. She’s taking 5-6 capelin at a time, and probably eating 25 or so a day. At that rate, she’ll be all grown up in no time! I’ll keep you posted on her progress.

Best regards, Diane

“Little Guy” in Avian Haven’s “rehab pool” in Maine.
“Little Guy” in Avian Haven’s “rehab pool” in Maine. Photo courtesy Ali Wagner and VCE.

So Little Guy’s fantastic journey continues — from a Vermont pond, then overland through woods to a roadside encounter, then a trip back to water, then another rescue, and now a detour to Maine. I’ll keep everyone posted on Little Guy’s progress.

This post ©2015 by A. Wagner, birder, citizen scientist and educator. Used by permission. It also appears in a slightly different form, at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies blog.

The first chapter in our Little Guy mini-saga appeared on our blog August 21, 2015.
Another post by AW appears our blog: Expert birder pwned by 4-year old

Little Guy

Guest post by our friend and expert birder, AW.

Two expressions I often use when birding are: Timing is everything and birding trumps everything. On August 18th, a young chick convinced me that just one of these statements is true as the baby changed the course of my day.

Route 105 in the Northeast Kingdom can be a busy road with 18-wheelers and fast cars. A few miles east of Island Pond in the middle of this drag strip, I saw the distinct shape of a loon. Oh no…but this was not an adult that mistook the glossy road for a body of water. It was a chick, still mostly covered with natal down. HOW did you manage to fly, Little Guy?

Little Guy
Little Guy

The chick offered little resistance when moved to the safety of a grassy area. Things were looking good though, since I had my ten dollar trakPhone charged, and I had service! But August is a busy time of year…I started making phone calls, many phone calls, unable to connect with a live voice! Many desperate messages were left, with details on where a loon and a lady needed rescuing! By now it was 8:30 and the sun was creeping higher and feeling hotter. I called my friend Eric Hynes for moral support, leaving another message.

I stood close to Little Guy to make shade while we waited together for a miracle. Occasionally the chick would row itself a few feet forward, doing a loon’s version of the butterfly stroke. What was it doing? Where was it going? In the distance I could hear an adult loon calling and the chick would respond. About a half mile south is Spectacle Pond, but between that point and the chick was an obstacle course of open fields, woods, steep embankments, railroad tracks, and crows. It may have been the mounting heat, but to me, the crows resembled a motorcycle gang.
Birding teaches us patience, persistence, and quietness…time passed. Any moment now a car is going to stop to help or my phone is going to ring! I was supposed to meet a friend, Tom, at Moose Bog by now. Thankfully around 9:15, Tom happened to see my car while driving past. We were now a united front. He went to Silvio Conte, reached the hotline at VINS, and was granted permission to move the chick. Kir Talmage at the Birds of Vermont Museum went online to get Eric Hanson’s phone number. Although I could not speak to him immediately, I knew Eric would contact me as soon as he could. Next, Eric Hynes called back to coach me in how to carefully wrap a loon in a towel so wings or legs would not get injured.

Now, for me, the concept of “rescuing” or intervening with wildlife is a moral issue. When is it right to get involved? But Route 105 and thousands of pounds of moving metal is not nature. Nor is acres of mowed fields that Little Guy would have needed to navigate before the next unnatural hurdle of railroad tracks. Clearly, nature had already been compromised. In my heart, I believed the situation called for some remediation, a sort of canceling out of a few of the human-made obstacles. From me, it felt like a feeble apology for our foolish flaws, and yes, an opportunity to be closer to nature.

Holding the loon in my arms while Tom drove to Spectacle Pond was better than birding. Feeling its strong heart beat through the towel, I worried about the stress of the whole ordeal, but within minutes we were at the water’s edge. I unwrapped the babe, lifted the towel to nudge it forward, and we celebrated when it sprang to new life in the water! We watched it swim toward an adult loon. Then Eric Hanson called.

The Loon Recovery Program is an amazing project. With just the information I gave him, Eric was able to figure out that the chick most likely came from Beecher Pond, just north and west of Spectacle Pond. When I described the chick to him, he said the chick didn’t fly onto the road, it walked. Over the years, his research has shown that adult loons will sometimes leave the nesting pond and call chicks to follow to another nearby pond. He said that for a few years now, one breeding pair has done this repeatedly. Chicks as young as four or five days old have made journeys across land.
Around 4:00, as I was heading back to the Brighton State Park, I decided to check on the chick from the boat launch. In my scope I saw a pair of adults with one chick. The chick looked a little different. I imagined I was seeing more white around the neck, or could it just appear different because the baby now had wet feathers? But I was reassured all was well by the sight of this threesome in addition to seeing a VCE sticker on a truck in the parking lot. It was Eric Hanson, who had followed his great intuition to thoroughly check out the situation. After visiting Beecher Pond, and finding no loons, he knew that the chick didn’t belong on Spectacle Pond. His reliable loon volunteers and data showed the family I was seeing had been here all season. When I asked him if the chick I’d seen in the scope was the one I had rescued, he produced a second chick from his kayak. He had a huge smile on his face, a look of sheer joy and success. After circling the entire pond, he happened to see Little Guy tucked in the reeds. What a lucky bird, to have someone like Eric with such strong conviction to search so thoroughly! And now, Where are your parents? was the next mystery to puzzle through.

For the second time that day, the loon took a short ride in a truck. This time it would be released in Island Pond. Eric hoped the parents would be in the corner of this pond that is closest to Beecher Pond. I got the sense that Eric knew this was a long shot, but he needed to give it a try. He knew this part of the pond had no breeding loons (that would be too close, unsafe, and unlikely for this chick to survive). He released the chick and we watched with great expectations as it slowly made its way toward two adult loons in the distance. But they didn’t connect.

The homeowner, who knew of Eric’s valuable work, had been watching with us. She mentioned a lone loon that hung out in the area. She called it “The Rogue Outlier.” Within ten minutes, the chick made its way back near us and unfortunately close to this adult loon. Instantly, Eric could tell that the chick was in going to be in grave trouble…soon. He ran to retrieve his paddle and grab a nearby kayak while I watched the aggressive adult loon circle and peck at the chick. Little Guy’s head lay submerged in the water for only a few seconds that felt more like minutes. Silently I pleaded for Little Guy’s head to pop back up, and it did. Eric was at its side in a flash, and miraculously retrieved the baby in a matter of minutes. Little Guy appeared to be unhurt by The Rogue Outlier.

The homeowner’s son asked his mom, “Is that your boat?”

“Yes,” she said with a hint of pride in her voice.

“How come I’ve never seen it move so fast?”

Now Eric knew if the chick had any chance of survival, it would need to go to a rehabber in Maine. Eric would take it home with him for the night,
feed it, and then make the three-hour drive in the morning. It would be cared for in Maine for about a month and most likely released in a nearby pond. Good luck, Little Guy! Now…where to get some minnows…

This post ©2015 by A. Wagner and used by permission. It also appears in a slightly different form, at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies blog.

Another post by AW appears our blog: Expert birder pwned by 4-year old

Not the eagle you might have expected

Bob and about 40 friends and members of the Museum celebrated his upcoming 90th birthday with a boat cruise on Lake Champlain. It was wonderful, and many said to me afterwards that this would be a fun thing to do annually.

Our carload arrived really early and we were involved with a rescue operation. Someone saw an eagle land in the water and flap around unable to fly away. The skipper and 4 of us went out looking for this bird, and we searched and searched. We had a net and 4 blankets for the rescue. All we found was a large juvenile gull sitting on a huge dead fish floating on the surface, and he flew off when we came near and then returned as we left. So much for eagles in distress! We had a good laugh.

—from a letter by Ingrid Riga, Curator,  to a sponsor of several of the carving exhibits