"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.