Listening to Eric Hanson describe the characters he works with, you might think he directed a reality TV show. Among them he counts stunningly beautiful couples who summer on the lake, Casanovas who bust up long-term relationships and fathers who shun their mates to rear their offspring solo. When he shares these stories, Hanson says, “I never get a blank look.”
Hanson, 46, is the coordinator of the Vermont Loon Recovery Project for the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. For the past 15 years, from early spring to late fall, he’s been the on-call guy for all things loon (in the winter, he grooms trails for Craftsbury Outdoor Center). Consequently, Hanson is constantly gathering dramatic tales about the 14-pound migratory birds. His charges this year include 80 nesting pairs of loons and their chicks, some Casanova loons, immature “floaters” and about 300 human volunteers.
After majoring in biology at Colby College in Maine, Hanson spent two years catching and banding loons. He returned to his home state of Minnesota and entered graduate school for conservation biology with a fellowship from the Department of Natural Resources that helped establish the state’s loon-monitoring program. By the end of his three years there, Hanson had coordinated loon data from 600 lake studies.
In 1996 he migrated to Vermont to be closer to his wife’s family and get involved in agriculture. For two years Hanson made cheese, and then, in 1998, just before the birth of the couple’s son, a seasonal job monitoring Vermont loons popped up. Hanson’s skills were a perfect match.
As Hanson’s responsibilities have grown over the past 15 years, so has the state loon population, rebounding from about 29 birds three decades ago to 283 this year. Also on his watch, the loon-chick survival rate has become the highest in North America, with seven chicks surviving per pair per decade.
From May to November, Hanson has canoe and paddles at the ready, and his answering machine and inbox are swamped with observations such as “We spotted a pair with two chicks this morning!” and “I’ve got a loon stranded in my manure pit!”
Seven Days tracked down Vermont’s loon biologist to monitor his habitat and behavior.
SEVEN DAYS: What kind of rookie mistakes do humans make when it comes to interacting with loons?
ERIC HANSON: Sometimes they see a bird sitting on shore, and they go right up to it, wondering, Oh, what’s it doing? They don’t realize the bird is nesting. Loons don’t really walk that much; they have to shuffle on their bellies to get up and down; their legs are too far back on their bodies; they’re made for water and for flying, but not for land. But they nest on land, on the shoreline.
Another mistake is when people make loon calls back to the loon. They think they’re having fun, but what they’re imitating is usually the loon’s distress call.
SD: How are loons like us?
EH: Well, parentally, both the mom and dad take care of the young and are really attentive and invested for three to four months, which is a really long time in the bird world. Also, they don’t necessarily mate for life — there are mate switches; they have divorces, a lot of which are caused by territorial challenges: An intruder comes in and wins the day. And, just as we can observe other humans and know about their lives, we can also observe and know every aspect of a loon’s daily life — from egg laying to territorial chases to death. Also, loons kill other loons. And they are extremely territorial, maybe more so than most humans. They require about a 100- to 200-acre region of a lake for breeding.
SD: How are they different from us?
EH: Loons can tell the difference between an osprey and a bald eagle. Some humans can, too, but loons can tell even from far away, as it’s flying. A loon will look up, and if it’s an osprey it will barely react, but if it’s a bald eagle, it might start its tremolo call or yodel, because eagles will easily take a chick.
SD: Where do loons go when they’re not here?
EH: Our Vermont loons winter off the New England coast. The Eastern Ontario and Québec loons winter in New Jersey down to the Chesapeake and Carolina coasts.
SD: What is the best part of your job?
EH: It’s always exciting to help a loon that would not have survived otherwise. I remember my first rescue in Vermont: A female loon on Joe’s Pond [in Danville] was caught up in fishing line. The male had kicked her out because she was viewed as a weakness, and he was raising their chick by himself. When she beached herself, we were able to sneak up and nab her and snip her free. Had we not been able to get her, she would have died. Then we just watched for the next half hour as she preened herself.
The best part, also, is to see and hear the joys and stories about the loons from all the lake-shore residents and volunteers. The excitement this bird can generate on a lake is incredible … loons are the common thread; they help bring people from all backgrounds together.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Vermont’s Loon-atic."