Loons visit the Chesapeake in the fall and spring, but may avoid the Bay if they cannot find enough menhaden to eat.Loons visit the Chesapeake in the fall and spring, but may avoid the Bay if they can't find enough menhaden to eat. Photo credit iStock

Call of the Loon

By Tom Pelton
Published in the Winter 2012 issue of Save The Bay magazine

It's a chilly November afternoon on the Choptank River on Maryland's Eastern Shore. As watermen in workboats motor back to harbor for the evening, the moon rises and airplanes trace silver trails across a darkening sky. A strange, unearthly laughter wobbles across the undulating waves. It's the call of a loon—a fishing bird sometimes called the "spirit of the north." Loons spend most of the year in Canada and the Northern United States. But every fall, loons visit the Chesapeake Bay during their long migration to warmer waters off Florida and the Carolinas.

The Common Loon at a Glance

APPEARANCE: Water bird with black head and red eyes, torpedo-like shape, and awkward gait on land.

SIZE: 2-3 feet in length; 6-12 pounds

RANGE: Loons breed in Canada and the northern U.S. They visit the Chesapeake Bay in the fall and spring as they migrate to and from warmer regions in the South.

DIET: Includes menhaden in the Bay, as well as frogs, leeches, crayfish, and mollusks.

INTERESTING FACT: Unlike most birds, loons have solid bones, and this added weight helps them dive as deep as 150 feet and stay under water for several minutes in searhc of fish. But this heaviness means they need a long runway to take off from the water.

SOURCES: MINNESOTA DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, MARYLAND DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES

Dr. Paul Spitzer, a biologist who studies loons, is out in a motorboat counting the birds, as he does most autumns, when the trees lining the shores turn gold and crimson. He spots a chorus of the birds spread out to surround a school of small fish called menhaden.

"When these birds are in a long arc this is, it is like a living fishnet," Dr. Spitzer said, watching with binoculars as the loons feast on their banquet, then spread their wings to preen and oil their feathers. "The presence of loons here on the Chesapeake Bay is very much one of the signs of the season."

The birds look, well... a bit loony—with thick, torpedo-shaped bodies, black heads, and large webbed feet that make them walk awkwardly. But they are lords of the water, powerful swimmers capable of diving 150 feet down and remaining underwater for long periods of time. Loons have oil-slicked feathers and solid, heavy bones to help them dive. Their eyes are blood-red, evolved to help them see underwater.

The relatively meager size of the flock on the Choptank is emblematic of a broader change Dr. Spitzer said he has witnessed over the last quarter century, as fewer and fewer loons appear to be visiting the Chesapeake Bay.

"Our count on this flock is about 85, our total count on the day is about 120," Dr. Spitzer said. "That would perhaps be 20 percent what a survey here would have found 25 years ago. We would typically have found 500 or 600 birds."

Why the decline?

"Well, the argument is that the food for loons just isn't here," Dr. Spitzer said. "What we are seeing is the number of birds supported by the food that's here."

Dr. Spitzer and other scientists are concerned that the loon's main prey here in the Chesapeake—small, oily fish called menhaden—are in decline.

A study released last year by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) concluded that menhaden have been overfished in 32 out of the last 54 years, including in 2008. The population of the fish is at the lowest level on record.

Industrial fishing fleets out of Reedville, Virginia, caught an estimated 183,000 metric tons of menhaden last year, which were ground up to manufacture fish oil pills, livestock feed, and other commercial products.

On November 9, 2011, ASMFC voted to impose new fishing guidelines that could eventually reduce the catch of menhaden. But the Virginia General Assembly must still vote on any catch restrictions, which could spark a battle.

Menhaden: Protecting a Key Food Source

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted on November 9, 2011, to impose new fishing guidelines to protect menhaden, a small, oily fish that is an important source of food for loons, striped bass, and many other species.

"This is a very hopeful sign," said Bill Goldsborough, Director of Fisheries for CBF who serves on the fisheries commission. "The more menhaden that are in the water, the healthier the whole Chesapeake Bay ecosystem will be."

The new guidelines could eventually reduce menhaden catches by roughly a third. But first, the commission must develop and adopt fishing limits for meeting the guidelines. And then the Virginia General Assembly must approve any fishing limits.

The East coast's only remaining menhaden fleet, based in Reedville, Virginia, employs almost 300 fishermen. The industry has long argued against harvest restrictions, and in the past has found support in the General Assembly. If Virginia fails to act to protect menhaden, despite the action by the other Atlantic states, the federal government could step in and impose a moratorium on catching menhaden in Virginia.

A big political battle may yet loom over the tiny fish.

Hanging in the balance of the fight over menhaden is the fate of a wide variety of species in the Chesapeake Bay that eat menhaden, including loons and striped bass.

Loons, bass, and menhaden are all tied tightly together in the Bay's web of life.  A recovery of striped bass populations two decades ago, driven by tight restrictions on catching the fish, coincided with a decline in both menhaden and visiting loons. This has led Dr. Spitzer to speculate that there could be a connection, with stripers eating fish that loons also need.

During his trip out to the Choptank River, as the flock of loons dove for fish and hooted to each other, Dr. Spitzer and the captain of the boat grabbed their fishing rods. They quickly reeled in several striped bass, which flipped and slapped their tails. Back on shore, the captain, Jim Price, sliced open the stripers' stomachs to reveal that almost all of them were full of menhaden.

Menhaden are a keystone species in the Bay. And the decline of menhaden could be throwing the Chesapeake's whole chain of life out of balance, said Dr. Bryan Watts, Director of the Center for Conservation Biology at William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University.

He said the Chesapeake Bay is famous as a stopover for a spectacular array of migrating birds, from loons to osprey and pelicans. But he warned this part of the Bay's identity could slip away if there are no fish for the birds to eat.

"As the fish go," Dr. Watts said, "so do all the species that depend on them."

If the call of the loon vanishes from the Chesapeake Bay, autumn will not be the same here. A spirit of the season will be lost.

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