POULTNEY — Lake St. Catherine has some unusual visitors.
Loons have been sighted on the lake for the first time in recent memory as the once-endangered birds push out from their traditional stronghold in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.
“They’re spreading all over the place,” said John Buck, migratory birds biologist for the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife. “The population is doing very well. We’re seeing loons start to inhabit places they haven’t been in a very long time — perhaps forever.”
One of those places is Lake St. Catherine, where Mallory Ketcham, manager of Lake St. Catherine State Park, said she saw a loon for the first time in her life while she was canoeing earlier this year.
“It was a surprise,” she said. “It was just floating. I was very surprised at how big they are.”
Ketcham said she has yet to hear the loon’s distinctive call on the lake.
Mary Jo Teetor, a lakeside resident, said she watched one of the birds dive in the middle of the lake late last month and spotted a pair the following day. “I hear them now and then early in the morning, but not consistently,” Teetor wrote in an email. “It is really nice to see them out here.”
Eric Hanson, loon biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, said he started getting reports of a pair of loons on Lake St. Catherine last year.
“If we start seeing two birds a lot, then we’ll be keeping even a closer eye for future nesting potential in the marsh areas at the north and south ends,” he wrote in an email. “I took a good tour of the pond in May and found nesting habitat to be somewhat limited on the main lake. Little Pond and Lily Pond, which are connected, have better options.”
Buck said loons are highly territorial, so it is expected they will spread out as the population grows. They are also particular about their habitat.
“ Loons require quiet water — water that doesn’t have a lot of wave action and gradual shorelines,” he said. “Loons can’t walk on land — they have to slide onto the shore to nest. ... If you look at distribution of water bodies, there’s more of those quiet water bodies in the northeast corner of the state.”
Loons were removed from the endangered species list in 2005, and the population continues to grow. Last year, Buck said the state counted 117 territorial pairs, of which 93 nested, producing 80 offspring.
“ Not just hatched — these are loons that actually took flight,” he said. “You go back to, say, 1990, instead of 117 territorial pairs, we have 17 territorial pairs, and only 15 fledglings that year. That was an increase from near zero in the 1970s, when loons were put on the endangered species list.”
Buck said the rebounding population shows that Vermont’s conservation efforts are paying off “in spades.”
“We have the laws, but what we really have that’s making it work is people care about loons,” he said. “ It’s made all the difference.”