The mild winter and warm spring this year started me thinking a little earlier than usual about all the warm weather outdoor activities that you can enjoy in the Lakes Region, so when I heard the sound of loons on nearby Squam Lake recently, I decided it was time to visit one of my favorite places, the Loon Center and Markus Wildlife Sanctuary in Moultonborough.
The Loon Center and Markus Wildlife Sanctuary is situated along the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee on Lee’s Mills Road, on 200 acres of land donated in the early 1990’s by summer resident Frederick Markus, in memory of his wife Paula. \The Center is open from 9am until 5pm, Monday – Saturday during the months of May and June, as well as from Columbus Day until December 31; from July 1 through Columbus Day weekend, the Center is open daily from 9am–5pm. From January 2 – the end of April, the Center is open from 9am-5pm, Thursday – Saturday. There is no admission charge to either the Center or the sanctuary.
The Loon Center hosts a number of activities, which are open to the public, most of which are free. These include weekly nature talks during the summer, year-round access to the Wildlife Sanctuary, special events, and access to wonderfully informative displays and videos about loons in the large meeting room. There is also a gift shop, where you can shop for “all things loon,” including mugs, shirts, ornaments, cards, books, tapes, videos, and other loon-oriented souvenirs. Additionally, you can order a limited number of items from the online store from their website at www.loon.org.
The building also serves as the headquarters of the Loon Preservation Committee, a self-funded project of the Audubon Society of New Hampshire. The Loon Preservation Committee was formed in 1975, after a group of concerned citizens noticed an alarming decline in the loon population on area lakes. The LPC’s stated mission is “…to restore and maintain a healthy population of loons throughout New Hampshire; to monitor the health and productivity of loon populations as sentinels of environmental quality; and to promote a greater understanding of loons and the natural world.”
Loons are a very ancient species – the Common Loon, the only species of loon that breeds in New Hampshire, is thought to have been on earth in its present form for over 22 million years. According to the informational displays at the Loon Center, the typical life span of a loon, barring unforeseen encounters with predators, motorboats, and lead sinkers, is about 25 – 30 years.
Like many other people, I appreciate the striking black and white coloring of loons and enjoy listening to their distinctive sounds as they call out to each other on the lakes. I also admire their ability to dive and swim great lengths underwater before resurfacing some distance away.
Loons return each spring from their winter habitats at the ocean to freshwater lakes once the ice is out to choose mates and nesting sites. By June, one or two eggs have been laid, with the nest tended to by both parents. In July, the chicks are hatched, and after about 12 weeks, the young loons are able to dive and feed on their own.
In the fall, the loons return to the open water of the ocean. Juvenile loons stay at the ocean for about three or four years before returning to the freshwater lakes to begin the breeding cycle again. Some loons return to the same nesting sites year after year, but many don’t, and they don’t always stay with the same mate from the year before.
The Loon Preservation Committee conducts a statewide annual loon census every July to count how many adult loons, juveniles, immatures, and chicks there are on as many lakes as possible throughout the state in an effort to help determine the health of the loon population. This year, the loon census will be held from 8am-9am on Saturday, July 21, followed by the annual Loon Festival at the Center from 10am until 2pm. The festival features games, children’s activities, free food and nature exhibits, and is free and open to the public. Anyone interested in volunteering to help with the census can contact the Loon Center at 476-LOON (5666).
Since the census monitoring first began in 1975, the loon population in New Hampshire has more than doubled, and although the trend over the past several years showed a bit of a decline in the number of surviving chicks and nesting pairs, the census in 2011 showed a positive reversal in most categories. According to the Fall 2011 Loon Preservation Newsletter, the number of adult loons, immatures, and chicks all increased, and the number of surviving chicks, which is a season-long monitoring process, also increased over last year.
During the summer months, the Center hosts a Nature Talk Series every Thursday evening at 7:30, this year starting on July 5, and running through August 23. Topics this year will include loons, bears, small mammals of New England, wildlife, the effects of human activities on our climate, plants, and the annual loon census season report. The programs are free, but donations are always appreciated.
The two nature trails in the Markus Wildlife Sanctuary are also free and are open to the public year round from dawn to dusk. The Forest Trail is a short 10-minute loop through mixed woods. The Loon Nest Trail covers about 1.7 miles and takes you to the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee, where you might find a pair of nesting loons in season. This trail takes about an hour to complete. Both trails are scenic and relatively easy, although good footwear is recommended.
The Loon Center will once again be co-hosting a weekly Loon Cruise on Squam Lake, with the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center on Fridays at 3pm in June, July, and August. The cruises, held on comfortable all-weather pontoon boats, last about 90 minutes, and a Loon Center biologist will be on board. Cruises leave from the Science Center’s dock on Route 3 in Holderness; costs are $22 for adults, $20 for seniors, and $18 for children. You can contact the Science Center at 968-7194 for more information and to obtain tickets.
In addition to the Loon Festival, the Loon Center also hosts several other special events throughout the year, including the Annual Summer Luncheon and Benefit Auction on June 10 at Church Landing in Meredith; a “Kayak-A-Thon on July 13 from Lee’s Mills to help support loon preservation in New Hampshire; the annual Carl R. Johnson Memorial Golf Tournament in Moultonborough on August 20; and the annual Holiday Open House on November 24, featuring hayrides, fun activities for children, free refreshments, and of course, a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus. The Holiday Open House is free and open to the public.
The Loon Center and Markus Wildlife Sanctuary are located on Lee’s Mills Road in Moultonborough. From Route 25, turn onto Blake Road next to the Moultonborough Central School, go for one mile to the end and turn right onto Lee’s Mills Road. For more information about the Loon Center or how to become a volunteer with the Loon Preservation Committee, call 476-5666 or log on to www.loon.org.