A lonely loon landed last month on a small suburban Virginia pond in a residential neighborhood, then it got stranded.
“It became bigger than just a loon,” said Emily Johnson, who lives near the pond and was among the first to spot the loon while walking her dog. “We had people who came together from so many walks of life for the same cause.”
The next chapter in the bird’s journey through Northern Virginia began this week, when rescuers sneaked up on the bird, scooped it into a net and shuttled it to friendlier terrain.
The loon’s story in Fairfax started in late April, when local birders said it made an unusual move, taking a pit stop at Lake Zasada, a small, man-made pond with trees, a fountain and plenty of gawkers in the Fair Lakes area just off the Fairfax County Parkway, near Interstate 66.
What makes this loon’s travel loony, birding experts said, is that it stopped at a spot of water that was so far inland — then stayed for several weeks. It was a win for bird-lovers, until they became worried it didn’t have enough room to fly away.
Loons need a large runway, experts said, so volunteers launched what they unofficially called “Operation Loon Rescue.”
Eventually, word reached Jay Mager, an Ohio-based biology professor nicknamed “The Loon Whisperer.” He volunteered to help rescue the stranded bird and move it to a larger body of water.
One man offered his small johnboat. Another donated a small motor. Someone brought a dolly to carry the equipment. Others brought large, bright lights to help spot the bird in the water.
“It was a potluck,” Mager said. “Everybody brought something to help in the rescue.”
Matt Felperin, a roving naturalist in Virginia who drove the boat in the mission, compared loons to sea planes: “They’ll be flapping to take off and out of the water, but they need a while to get that lift.”
For Mager, who has a PhD in neurobiology and behavioral ecology from Cornell University, that’s what was concerning. Lake Zasada seemed too small, surrounded by tall trees. There might not be enough room for flight.
The easiest time to capture a loon, Mager said, is when they are protecting their chicks. Grabbing one on water is trickier because they dive when they sense danger.
For back-to-back nights, the trio quietly took the johnboat into Lake Zasada and tried to sneak up on the loon.
On Monday, nearly three dozen loon enthusiasts showed up to watch from the shoreline. Some helped load the boat and equipment into the water. Three people were on board: Mager, Felperin and Joley Sullivan, a veterinary technician who held a large light to find the loon in the darkness.
For more than three hours, they repeatedly eased the boat close to the loon, shining a bright light on the bird with Mager trying to scoop it into a net and wrangle it into the boat. But each time, the bird dove underwater. A few times, they got the bird into the net, but it managed to get out. By 1 a.m., they stopped.
“It was like a game of whack-a-mole,” Felperin said.
The next night they changed their strategy, Mager said.
Mager initially had made hoots and sounds like those of loon chicks in hopes that would attract the bird. When that didn’t work, they used the sounds of a male loon from an iPhone app. Just before midnight Tuesday, Mager nabbed it with the net.
“I said to them, “We got it!” Mager recalled. “There was a sigh from all three of us.”
They got the boat back to shore, where others helped them unload the loon, get it into a large, plastic bin, put it into a car and shuttle it about 15 minutes away to Burke Lake, a larger body of water.
A Manassas retiree who had started a Facebook page when the loon landed in Fairfax posted daily pictures and comments that tracked the loon swimming, preening, fish-catching and eating. Many people following the rescue watched for updates from those on the shoreline.
Karen Fulkerson wrote that following the loon’s landing and rescue gave her a sense of helping with something at a “time when we feel helpless about so much of life — pandemic, shootings, etc.”
In the winter, loons are mostly a plain gray. But in their summer breeding months, their plumage changes to a pattern of black and white markings on their back and an iridescent mix of blue-black and green feathers on their neck. Their sharp, pointy bills change from gray to black.
Loons have red eyes believed to help them see better when diving into deep, dark waters for fish. They migrate in summer to freshwater lakes in the northern United States and Canada from the salty waters in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
But, known as the “great northern diver,” loons are terrible on land.
Their legs awkwardly sit farther back on their bodies, which helps make them good swimmers and divers but makes for a struggle when walking, according to wildlife experts. They are heavy birds, which makes it hard for them to take off and get into the air. They need a long runway — at least a quarter-mile.
Holding the loon Tuesday night, Mager let a few onlookers gently touch it before he released it into the larger lake.
“When the loon saw Burke Lake it was like a cat getting cat nip,” Mager said. “It’s going to have a better chance now than where it was.”
Mager said he believes the loon is a female. It didn’t appear to be hurt. The loon’s followers are watching social media updates to see whether it spends the season at Burke Lake or takes off for northern breeding grounds.
When the loon was released, Mager said, it seemed to swim out onto the lake, preening itself. And just before it swam out too far, Johnson — who had originally spotted it in Fairfax — said it gave off a call.
She said, “It was like it was thanking us.”