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A Life: Kittie Wilson ‘Was Just a Natural Naturalist’

  • Kittie Wilson in her photography gear, taken in 2017 on Pleasant Lake. (Family photograph)

  • Father (the loon) photographed by Kittie Wilson in 2017 on Pleasant Lake. (Kittie Wilson photograph) Kittie Wilson photograph (left); family photograph (below)

  • Kittie and John Wilson, circa. 2000, during a skiing trip in Snowmass, Colo. (Family photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/1/2018 11:32:08 PM
Modified: 7/1/2018 11:32:08 PM

New London — Though the heavy summer rains hadn’t yet let up, Kittie Wilson stepped out of Lanes End and made her way through the wet predawn, to the inflatable boat bobbing on the dark, swollen waters of Pleasant Lake.

It was 2002. After decades of waiting and hoping on the part of local conservationists, loons had finally returned to the lake the previous year, catapulting Wilson, then 52 and recently retired from a career as an elementary school teacher in the Kearsarge school district, headfirst into what would prove to be a lifelong love affair with the threatened bird.

The breeding pair — one of only about 200 in New Hampshire at the time — had built a rudimentary nest of sticks and pine cones on Blueberry Island. The small spit of land lay directly across the lake from Lanes End, the home where Wilson and her husband, John Wilson spent their 29-year marriage.

The Wilsons named the breeding pair Mother and Father. Unlike most birds, loons tend to lay only two eggs per year, with both parents investing all of their time and energy into hatching a pair of siblings and raising them to adulthood. The slow rate of reproduction is one reason the bird populations have been slow to recover from a 1975 low of 135 adults, despite the efforts of groups such as the Loon Preservation Committee.

Mother and Father struggled to raise their own chicks. Mother was young and inexperienced, having been born not many years before on Swan Lake, and Father wasn’t much older. In summer 2001, their first on Pleasant Lake, one of their two chicks was snatched by a snapping turtle. And that day in 2002, as Wilson piloted her boat out near Blueberry Island, camera in tow, she was dismayed to see the rising lake levels lapping at the edge of the nest, threatening a second year’s eggs.

John Wilson sat in their kitchen recently and described how important a role the natural world had played in the life of his wife, who died in May of an aggressive cancer.

“She was very, very in touch with nature. She grew up in the woods basically. Walking in the woods with her was amazing. She just knew it all,” he said, surrounded by loon pictures, loon calendars, loon-themed coat racks and loon-shaped paperweights. “She was just a natural naturalist.”

He recalled the day she came back and told him that, if the water levels kept rising, the loons’ nest was in trouble.

The rain didn’t relent. By the end of the day, both eggs had been ruined by the freezing lakewater. Mother and Father seemed to be new to parenting, but they were persistent. After the rains subsided, they created a second nesting site, on a tuft of grass poking up above the lakewaters in a cove on the other side of the lake, but soon, that one was flooded too.

Kittie Wilson worried that the birds would abandon the area as an inhospitable environment and leave Pleasant Lake, once again, loonless.

Saving Two Loons

John Wilson said his wife was sensitive enough to cry mournful tears over a dead or dying loon, but tough and practical enough to muster whatever resources she could to prevent it from happening the next time.

“She was pretty and she was beautiful,” he said. “It was just all through her, you know?”

With the fate of Pleasant Lake’s loons hanging in the balance, she reached out to the Moultonborough, N.H.-based Loon Preservation Committee.

Harry Vogel, a wildlife biologist and executive director of the Loon Preservation Committee, said he became fast friends with Kittie Wilson through her volunteerism.

“We were always thrilled to have a new observer or a new volunteer, but we just had no idea what we were getting,” Vogel said. “She just had a special relationship to those birds.”

He learned that she cared about the loons the way she cared about people — which was a lot, he said, evidenced by frequent kind gestures.

“I don’t think I ever had a meeting with Kittie without getting a plate of cookies for the entire staff,” he said.

When the Wilsons asked Vogel how to help Mother and Father, he sent them a set of instructions to build a raft — essentially pressure-treated wood floating with the aid of foam — to serve as a manmade nesting site.

The Wilsons saw room for improvement in the plans and John Wilson, a savvy builder, had the ability to implement his wife’s vision of a Cadillac model.

“This is the most deluxe version of a loon nesting raft,” Vogel said. “When you look at that raft compared to the Chevy version, they definitely had some very posh digs for their incubation.”

With legs positioned near the rear of their bodies, loons are ill-suited for walking, which limits their natural nesting options. The Wilson raft was tilted just so, to make it very easy for the loons to access. Beneath an arched avian guard to protect against predatory eagles and crows, the raft was lush with carpeting and landscaping, including forget-me-nots (which quickly became Kittie Wilson’s signature loon raft adornment) and a blueberry bush. Each winter, they reinforced the structure against muskrats.

“A lot of the time you put these rafts out and it will take five years before they start using them, but son of a gun, they were there the next year,” John Wilson said.

And this time, comfortable and secure on their floating fortress, Mother and Father raised two healthy chicks. A delighted Kittie Wilson documented their every move with an increasingly sophisticated eye for nature photographs.

Becoming Loon Lady

A routine developed. Each May, the Wilsons put up buoys and signs to ward off recreational lake users, and within a few days, the loons would be using the nesting site.

With the Wilsons now among the most active volunteers for the Loon Preservation Committee, Mother and Father became bird celebrities. Kittie’s photos and words described how the loons developed new parenting skills. Mindful of that first lost chick, they always ducked their head under the water, scanning for snapping turtles, before allowing their offspring into the water. When Father couldn’t get a fussy chick to accept a yellow perch, he would pass it off to Mother, knowing that she would have more success.

Kittie Wilson started a tradition in which each year, a different person from the loon conservation community was invited to bestow upon the year’s chicks a name that started with the letter P, to denote Pleasant Lake.

And so Kittie Wilson began emailing out photos of fluffy young loons with names like Pantaloon, Passamaquoddy, Ping, Pong or Poppy. At first, she just sent them to a few loon-interested friends who lived on the lake, but more and more people began requesting to be put on her distribution list. She spent long hours of silent observation from behind a camouflaged blind, waiting for that magic moment when Mother rolled her eggs, or Father delicately held a minnow out to his tiny chick.

Wilson’s regular emails of her photos evolved into a weekly nature journal, “All Things Pleasant on the Lake,” which she sent to a growing distribution list. She made calendars and cocktail books featuring the photos, and sold them, donating the proceeds to the Loon Preservation Committee.

In 2009, she was given the Spirit of the Loon Award, the top honor of the preservation committee. People throughout New England began to call her the Loon Lady, and her phone began to ring with questions — how, she was asked by someone from Maine, would one go about feeding a pair of orphaned chicks?

Wilson sent descriptions, illustrated with photos, of the way the parents sank into the water until they were level with their hatchlings and fed them perch and crayfish, always headfirst.

She began lecturing on loons. Through a combination of careful observation and public speaking skills honed as a teacher, she was able to convey the personalities of the individual birds in a way that no one else could.

Viewed through her presentation, Mother and Father came to life, and so did their chicks — some bold, others cautious, some eagerly feeding themselves independently, and others begging their parents for food long after learning how to fish for themselves.

Protector

Right from the start, Kittie Wilson was sensitive to the threats faced by Pleasant Lake’s loons. She lobbied town officials to manage the lake’s water levels more consistently, and she scared off the eagles that took too keen an interest in her avian wards.

“And Father, he always would come right over to her almost like he was saying thanks,” John Wilson said.

But there was another, even more insidious threat, that both loon and Loon Lady seemed helpless to resist. One day, she found a loon that was listless. She suspected the culprit was the number one killer of adult loons in the state of New Hampshire: lead poisoning. She turned on her camera, and fretted as she would at the bedside of a sick neighbor as the loon grew weaker and weaker.

“She documented the decline of this loon,” said Vogel. “It’s such a painful and inhumane ending. All of that affected her really deeply. ... She didn’t want to go through that again.”

Characteristically, Wilson didn’t let her emotions paralyze her. Rather, she used them to galvanize herself — to galvanize everybody in her world — to action.

“She was a force of nature,” Vogel said.

“The smallest piece of lead will kill a loon,” Kittie Wilson wrote, in a letter to the Concord Monitor. “When a sinker or jig is lost in the lake, loons may pick it up as they forage for pebbles to aid in digestion, or when feeding on a fish that is attached to lead tackle. That loon will die of lead poisoning in a matter of weeks.”

After two years of sustained effort, the Wilsons, the Loon Preservation Committee and other conservationists convinced the New Hampshire Legislature to pass, in 2013, a law banning lead fishing tackle of up to one ounce, the size most commonly swallowed by loons. Vogel credited Wilson, who testified before legislators and spearheaded public lobbying campaigns, with being an integral part of the bill’s passage.

The Thing About Loons

So why, of all the many creatures of the world with which Kittie Wilson was familiar, was it the loons that had captivated her?

Vogel said the answer lay in the behavior of the loons themselves.

“She loved the careful parenting of these loons,” he said. “Other birds, like a merganser, the male comes, he does his thing, he leaves and there’s a female with 12 little chicks. And every week there’s one fewer chick.”

Loons, by contrast, offered “a much more human example.”

Mother and Father faced the challenges of parenthood together, each doing what they could to warm, protect and nurture one or two young.

“These birds love their chicks. She often talked about that,” Vogel said. “It is kind of a human emotion, and maybe a straight-laced scientist would say you can’t ascribe that emotion to an animal. But we all know that you can. And Kittie wasn’t embarrassed to say it.”

When John Wilson used his wife’s distribution list to tell people that she had passed, he said he received replies that showed just how wide-ranging the community that rallied around her had become. He got condolences from all over the world — England, Norway and South Africa.

A citation recognizing Wilson’s contributions to the loons recently was read into the Congressional Record by U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H..

But John Wilson and Vogel said she didn’t do it for the recognition. She did it for the bird she cared about.

Since 2002, the number of breeding pairs of loons in New Hampshire has increased from about 200 to about 300. Many of the new pairs include the offspring of Mother and Father, who have, under Wilson’s watchful eye, become the longest known continuously breeding loon pair in the state.

Vogel said the formula for conservation success is built on people like Kittie Wilson.

“It just takes one person to take a leadership role, and that person can have a profound impact on changing the culture of that lake,” he said. “Those are the places in New Hampshire where loons have thrived.”

As John Wilson reminisced in his kitchen, his phone rang, and he excused himself.

“Hello? Yeah,” he said into the receiver. “Oh, do you? Oh! Oh, really? Oh great! They’ll probably stay overnight and then go in the morning. I’ve got somebody here now, but I’m going to come down and look as soon as we’re done.”

He hung up.

Mother and Father were continuing to do their part in the restoration effort. The second chick, he announced, had broken out of its shell, and likely would leave the nest the next morning.

The tradition Kittie Wilson began — the annual naming of the loon chicks — is continuing, John Wilson said. The Loon Preservation Committee asked him to do the honors this year.

“The first chick is Precious Kitty... ,” he said. “The second is Proud John.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.




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