A New Loon’s Year

Our friends at Friends of the Dunes called one Monday morning in the middle of January to tell us that someone had stopped by their facility, the Humboldt Coastal Nature Center, to report a stranded Loon. We were well staffed that morning so we were able to send a couple people over to take a look. All Winter long we admit seabirds into care who are struggling, for one reason or another, and wind up on the beach in serious trouble.

Seabirds, including those like Loons, who raise their young on freshwater lakes and winter on salt water bays and near shore ocean, evolved millions of years ago to a life spent primarily on water. Dense pale feathers on their ventral surface, below the waterline, keep birds warm in the cold ocean and also provide cryptic coloring against predators from below, such as sharks, sea lions, and whales, who may have a harder time detecting the birds floating above them in the light. Another change the aquatic environment has driven in some species is the placement of the pelvis and legs far to the rear of their bodies. As foot-propelled pursuit divers, loons and grebes are dramatic examples of this adaptation. On land these kinds of birds appear very awkward, often unable to stand or walk. Relatively heavy birds, on land they can be literally stranded (stuck on a strand, i.e. beach) where they need a running start across open water to gain the speed necessary for lift. Because of this many people who find them on a beach might mistakenly think the bird is suffering a broken leg!

Typically, all of these adaptations add up to the fact that a seabird on the beach needs help. A terribly vulnerable location, only a bird with no other options would chose the beach over the water, where everything that supports life is found. Injuries, contaminants such as oils that interfere with the feathers’ waterproof insulation, and illness are common factors in stranded birds, but most often, the birds we admit from beaches are juveniles spending their first winter at sea.

Struggling to feed themselves, storms, heavy surf and the challenges of learning the ropes on the job all contribute to the failures of these birds, especially in our times, when ocean health is in a critical state. Over-fishing, agricultural waste run-off, plastic pollution, derelict fishing gear and the great onrushing disaster of climate chaos make the already challenging ocean into a rapidly unfolding disaster.

When our staff arrived at the beach in Manila, they quickly found the bird, a juvenile Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica), high up the beach above the line of wrack that marked the highest tide. Quickly scooping him up, they brought the young bird back to Humboldt Wildlife Care Center.HWCC volunteer heads back up the dune with a young Pacific Loon safely in the box. (photo: Lucinda Adamson/BAX)

On the admission exam we found no real problems – just a young thin bird who’d missed to many meals. The loon was fortunate. Another day unseen and dehydration alone would have begun taking a terrible on his health. Instead, we were able to stabilize his condition and get him turned around. Within a day he was floating in one of our pools, rapidly recovering. In cases like this, fish is medicine.
Our pools are a critical part of our facility. Aquatic birds make up nearly half the patients that HWCC treats.

Typically, it takes about 3 weeks for a seabird to recover from emaciation. This bird however, was in somewhat better condition, and also individuals vary. Some just get down to the business of recovery faster, either due to relative health, certain capabilities, or any of the myriad other factors that we can sense or imagine, but may never know. In any case, after 11 days in care, this Loon was ready to go home. Besides the measurable parameters, such as body mass and red blood cell percentages that we use for all seabirds. Able to “dive like a banshee” (an in-joke here at the clinic – banshees scream; they don’t dive.), meaning when we tried to capture for an exam, he would slip beneath the water and swim laps around the pool, staying down for minutes at a time.
It’s a simple, inescapable fact that none of our procedures are done with the consent of our patient. This fact demands that we bring our A-game to all of our actions, but especially in our empathy for the indignities of our handling. Swift, gentle, decisive and accurate are the qualities we strive for in all our dealings. Acknowledging the stress and trauma of captivity that all of our patients endure so that we can mitigate their impact is an important ingredient in respecting them and providing the care they need.

So on a cool, cloudy morning we took the Loon down to the edge of Humboldt Bay for release. As soon as he hit the water, he dove, eager to rinse the stench of his caregivers from his beautiful and oceanic young feathers and get back to the business of his life, riding the wave of a second chance.

The last box this Loon will know – heading out for release.

At the release site, an HWCC volunteer lifts the Loon gently to place in the water.

And under he goes!

Back up!

And he begins to sail off, freedom and salt water and hopefully no walls confining him ever again.

Alone at last, our ex-patient starts hunting for his own fish.

So far this year we’ve already admitted over 60 of our wild neighbors, each of them desperate for care, a certain death the only other avenue. We’re committed to providing that care. We’ve built the pools; we’ve stocked the larder; we’ve trained the staff. None of these would’ve ben possible without your support. Thank you!

We’ve begun our fundraising to prepare for another busy year. We need to raise $25,000 by the end of April. This will get us through the first half of the Summer, and by then we’ll need to ask again. We hope you can help get us there! If you can, please donate today! Thank you!

photos: Laura Corsiglia/BAX except where noted