A Loon’s Travails Off Sandy Point

As I See It

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Bill Sargent, The Daily News of Newburyport, Edition August 24, 2019

“June 28 was hot and humid, and the greenheads were starting to hatch, so I decided to swim in the oceanside of Sandy Point in hopes that the east wind would keep the vicious tabanids at bay.”

“I admired the boulder field of Bar Head. The rocks had been pushed out of New Hampshire during the last Ice Age and had buttressed this end of the island for 4,000 years.”

“Now, the rocks get frozen and buffeted around by waves and occasionally one will split open, revealing a perfectly formed geode with radiating veins of crystals formed as a blob of volcanic magma filled with water and cooled over hundreds of millions of years. It was a perfect day to sit on the beach, taking occasional dips in the shallow water. As I was body surfing, I saw the distinct shape of a flounder swimming beneath me.”

“After a while, I noticed a large bird swimming low in the water. It swam rapidly with its head underwater, then dove and came up with big, fat flounder flapping in its bill.”

“The bird was larger than a cormorant, so I figured it was an immature loon. They are raised in freshwater lakes but spend their immature years in coastal waters before they develop their distinctive yodeling call that John McPhee likened to the laugh of the deeply insane.”

“But something was wrong. The young male kept trying to dislodge something in its feathers. Sometimes, it would stretch its leg back and use its bill to try to get something off its foot.”

“Finally, it became frustrated, it rose out of the water and beat its wings frantically before sinking back exhausted and resigned to its fate.”

“When it did so, I could see that its feathers were rumpled and ragged. It looked like he had been entangled in fishing line and perhaps even been impaled by a fishhook.”

“Over 30 percent of loon deaths come from such entanglements, 40 percent from lead sinkers that they ingest in their gizzards to help digest fish.”

“It was horrible to think that while we humans sat so serenely on the beach, this beautiful creature was fighting for its life just offshore.”

“I pointed him out to a young father who used his son’s boogie board to swim out to the unfortunate bird, but the loon was healthy enough to keep his distance. I thought of trying to flag down a boat but figured the result would be the same.”

“I finally decided there was nothing that could be done and that nature would run its course and the loon would die of malnourishment or be captured by a predator. So I simply told a ranger the bird’s location and left the beach.”

“Almost a full month later, I saw a loon displaying similar behaviors. It arched its back and pecked at something and rose up out of the water, flapping its wings but it never flew. Between these bouts, it also dove down for fish.”

“Loons are tough birds and fishhooks can dissolve in their gullets or in the environment after a few weeks. Perhaps, this was another loon that had become entangled by a fishhook and line.”

“To this day, I’m not sure whether what I saw was an entangled bird or just natural behavior. If it was entangled, I like to think that I saw the same bird and with persistence, it would finally rid itself of the hook and live a well-deserved life.”

Copyright © 2019 The Daily News of Newburyport, Edition 8/24/2019

The photograph of a loon off Sandy Point is a Sandy Tilton photograph.

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