Story and photos by Daniel Poleschook, Jr. and Ginger Gumm

The mid-July evening was clear and perfectly calm. Calls from a common loon family could be heard across bandingSouth Twin Lake. As the last indications of twilight gave way to darkness, hearing the calls told a small group of common loon research scientists and volunteers that loons were present, and that their intended activity of capturing and banding common loons was about to begin. Dave Evers and James Paruk, two renowned and experienced loon biologists, sponsored by Loon Lake Loon Association, headed the group, which was to band common loon chicks and adults on South Twin Lake, Ferry Lake and Bonaparte Lake in the Okanogan Highlands of northeastern Washington.

The technique of banding common loons consists of choosing a time period when chicks are four to five weeks of age, by using strong lights at night and recorded parent and chick calls. Individuals are netted from a small boat as they mistakenly approach in confusion. Evers has perfected this technique over the many years he has banded loons. He has banded hundreds of common loons-all without a single casualty. Without using these specialized tactics, loons would be impossible to capture because of their excellent capabilities of swimming and diving.

For most of the volunteers, this would be our first experience in banding loons. Janey Youngblood became our advisor because of her previous experiences with loon banding. On the southeastern shoreline of South Twin Lake at 10:00 p. m., the group listened to the leaders make assignments and discuss the details of a plan of action. A short time later we eased off the shoreline in our small boat equipped with two electric motors. By now the darkness was intense as it was a moonless night. Only the stars produced a very small amount of light. The dominant sounds were the electric motors and the sounds of our boats slipping slowly through the water, and my heart pounding in my chest!

'Gentle hands and bands'We headed in a southwest direction, the direction that we had seen and heard the loons before darkness. We knew that we were too distant yet to see the loons with our searchlights. Recorded loon calls were then used. A response from the loons gave us a direction of the loon family-approximately straight ahead of our direction of travel. >From the volume of the response, we know we were getting quite close. Searchlights were turned on and swept left and right along the water surface. The three loons were readily found and we proceeded closer. As we moved closer, both parents began giving tremolo calls to show their distress of our approach. One parent remained close to the chick; however, the other fled the area. Ginger commented that the tremolo call coming from the remaining parent sounded like it was from the female parent, which she had named "Bandit" (for her elusive ways) a few years earlier. We had spent many hours in previous seasons in this part of South Twin Lake photographing this female, her chicks, and her former memorable mate that Ginger had named "R-B" for his one red eye and one black eye. As we remembered "R-B," we knew he would have become very protective of his family that was being encountered in the darkness. But "R-B" was gone. In 1998, he did not return to South Twin Lake. The new male that claimed the vacated territory moved in during the spring of 2000. The lone chick with its mother was his first, to our knowledge. His reaction to our approach was to flee to the extreme north end of the lake-so far distant that his calls were faint.

A short time later we able to approach the chick close enough to capture it. The chick had maintained its position as the searchlights were aimed at it while recorded parent calls were played. A large net handled by the skillful hands of Dave Evers brought in our first subject. A short time later, the female adult was re-captured, as she had been formerly banded in 1996. Both were processed individually at the lake-edge Evers' mobile clinic. An banding3abundance of paraphernalia is used to measure and take samples of loons. A blood sample is taken to determine a variety of health indicators and DNA characteristics. The data are recorded and the loons are banded on both legs with bands that are color-coded for distance identification. An additional band bears the unique identification number of each loon as registered with the American Ornithologists' Union. If a banded bird is processed again or recovered after its demise, its identification number reveals its identity. A variety of determinations thencan be made about the bird.

Following the successful banding at South Twin Lake, our next activity was to caravan 40 miles during the early morning hours across the twisted pass over the Kettle Mountains to Ferry Lake. We needed to band at least one more loon before our nights' activities would conclude. Shortly after our journey began, an inebriated pickup driver forced us over to the extreme right edge of the road. Luckily, there was no head-on collision, although it was close. Needless to say, the event helped us stay awake during the grueling miles over to Ferry Lake.

bandingWe arrived at Ferry Lake, as the first sign of dawn was evident in the northeastern sky. We quickly launched the capture boat and proceeded onto the lake's surface feeling now like seasoned veterans in this procedure of banding loons. We needed to capture and band both of the chicks at Ferry Lake for comparative purposes, as this family was being studied as part of a special fish-stocking program to enhance the fledging of the chicks. With good fortune, we were able to capture one chick before dawn made us terminate. We would have to make another attempt, later, for the other chick.

Our next activity was-actually no activity: Sleep! We pitched our tents and crawled in, too tired to care much about comfort. We slept well for a few hours, before a combination of snoring (from the direction of the two biologists' tent (they later blamed each other!)) and mid-morning direct sunlight forced evacuation of our special quarters. We broke camp and had a good round of discussion about our favorite nature subject: loons.

Next, we were off to Bonaparte Lake for another round of loon banding. Despite our few hours of sleep, we were in good shape for the drive. After a shower, some food, and an afternoon nap, we were ready. Bonaparte Lake has a long-time resident loon pair that this year produced two healthy chicks. We waited for darkness again, on another beautiful night of clear and calm conditions. Both of the adults had been banded previously, so our capture techniques were somewhat more challenged than at the two previous lakes. However, it was not long before we were able to capture the resident male, "Papa," named by Bonaparte Lake resident and volunteer Dan Furlong. "Papa" and his mate have successfully defended Bonaparte Lake as their territory and have reared chicks there for many years. Papa is a large male weighing 4800 grams (10.6 pounds). It was special for Dan to be able to hold and comfort "Papa" during his processing. The two had talked to each other on the waters of Bonaparte Lake many times. A short time later, we captured and processed the larger chick. After each of the captures, James Paruk would release the loons by walking into shallow water, and gently lowering the birds into the water to ease them back into their environment, unharmed by the procedure.

Jim Paruk returning one of the loons to the lakeWith a few hours of darkness remaining, we next drove back to Ferry Lake to attempt to capture the smaller of the two chicks at Ferry Lake. We were successful and full of elation about our success of banding and processing six common loons in two nights of work. We next drove to Republic, in an euphoric state. Our personal first banding experience had been wonderful. We had a celebratory lunch in Republic with Dave Evers and James Paruk that was dominated by loon discussion. We said good-byes, and the two biologists headed back to the Spokane airport, and back to their normal lives.

Banding loons provides information that will aid in the long-term success for the common loon. With the new data acquired, we were able to make comparisons of the weights of the two Ferry Lake chicks that were part of the special fish-stocking program for the loons (see accompanying article Two Chicks Fledge at Ferry Lake!), with the other northeast-Washington chicks captured, plus to other chicks that have been banded by Dave Evers in other parts of North America. Our new information was key in recommendations that were made for next year's planned fish-stocking program at Ferry Lake.

Loon Lake Loon Association wishes to thank Dave Evers and James Paruk, and all the volunteers that assisted in the banding, and the Colville Indian Reservation, the United States Forest Service, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for their assistance and cooperation. We can hardly wait for next year's banding. Plan to join us for an exhilarating adventure.