Jan. 23—LOVELL — Laura Robinson and Heinrich Wurm huddled around a birding scope on the shores of Kezar Lake watching two loons stranded in openings in the ice, and worried about what they saw.
The openings were left after ice-in started during a cold snap, but didn't quite finish in the deepest parts of the lake, about a quarter of a mile off shore. The two loons were stuck and unable to take off, because common loons require a water "runway" to push off and get airborne. Farther up the lake, three other loons were stuck in similar fashion.
The two loons swam slowly back and forth, periodically making the birds' haunting cry. Robinson and Wurm seemed frightened, as well, after Lovell's volunteer fire chief showed up and concluded a rescue was too dangerous. But the two Kezar Lake residents held out one last hope.
A half hour later, three biologists from the Biodiversity Research Institute in Portland drove up in two trucks carrying a kayak and inflatable raft. The team was called at the behest of the two lake residents who volunteer on the Kezar Lake Watershed Association's loon program.
"That's the dream team," said Robinson, the program's director, as her face broke into a smile.
Lucas Savoy, BRI's loon program director, and wildlife biologists Chris Persico and Bill Hanson came over to Robinson's scope to get a look at the loons, gauge the distance to reach each, and discuss ice thickness.
Because ice-in had only just started, they suspected the ice was no more than 1- to 2-inches thick, just barely reaching the recommended 2-inch limit for a single person to safely travel across it.
Yet after the team's assessment, something unexpected happened.
The three men walked back to their trucks, got out dry suits to wear should they fall through the ice, and the jokes started to fly. This was not their first rodeo, as they say.
The men joked about how Savoy would buy them steak dinners if they were successful saving the loons. Hanson made a crack about the rope bags needed for in-water rescues.
"This is where you give the other guy the good throw-bag, because he's going to be throwing that one to you," Hanson said.
The mission to Kezar Lake on Jan. 13 was part of Biodiversity Research Institute's new project with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help restore loon numbers that were lost during the North Cape Oil Spill in Rhode Island in 1996, which resulted in the loss of hundreds of common loons. The mitigation funds were made available last spring to organizations like BRI in New York and New England. BRI is working on rescuing loons that are stranded from fishing gear entanglements, ice and other events — and partnering with Avian Haven in Freedom to help rehabilitate injured birds.
Loons can live up to 30 years, so the loss of a breeding loon impacts many potential years of nesting and raising young, Savoy said. While loons spend the warmer months on lakes and ponds, they migrate to the ocean in winter. But some, mostly younger birds, fail to migrate before the lakes freeze over.
Earlier this winter, the BRI team saved four other loons from partially iced-in lakes in Maine.
"In the past, we couldn't get help. This is new and so exciting," Robinson said.
Wurm said over the years he has heard loons stuck in the ice call out all night, unable to get out. Often they are picked off by hungry bald eagles.
But partially frozen lake ice is dangerous for humans, as well.
About 20 years ago, four snowmobilers from Massachusetts went through the ice on Kezar Lake. The local fire department were able to pull two of the men out. Two others perished.
Savoy acknowledged the loon mission is full of risks.
"I know there are some who think it's reckless or irresponsible. I can assure you, we would never have ventured out there without an experienced team and a well-planned attack," Savoy said. "Collectively, the three of us have some pretty good experience."
The BRI team wore thick dry suits used by cold-water divers, and pushed small water crafts they could jump into quickly should the ice give way. Slowly the three biologists fanned out to minimize the weight on the ice, and inched their way toward the first bird.
Hanson got close to the hole, while Savoy and Persico used a large gill net on either side of it to push the loon toward him. It took 30 minutes, but Hanson finally netted the loon. Remarkably, despite standing on the edge of the hole, he didn't fall in.
"I could feel it bending under me," he admitted later.
The team had the same success with the second loon, though it was slow work. Each loon was put in a plastic bin equipped with a raised net for the loons to lie on, so if the bird defecated, it wouldn't sit in its mess.
Back on land, after they slowly backtracked across the ice, Lee Attix, the Loon Conservation Association director who assists the lake association, inspected the birds as Hanson held the formidable bills. A loon's beak can take out an eye, but as Hanson cradled each bird in turn, he was in high spirits.
"He was more scared of that bald eagle than me," Hanson said.
With only a few hours of daylight left, the team gathered its gear and decided to make a run at the three other loons stranded up the lake, a trip that required driving a mile on unplowed roads. By day's end, the team had doubled its previous success this winter — saving five loons.
"It was a dangerous mission for sure, but the BRI guys have the equipment, the experience and an unstoppable positive spirit," Robinson said. "We started out the day hoping that at least a few of the birds would be captured. We didn't dare dream that all five could be saved."