Maine Audubon's annual loon count July 19

Jul 14, 2014

Since 1983, volunteers across the state have visited their local lakes and ponds the third Saturday in July with a pair of binoculars and a shared passion – protecting the Maine loon and its habitat.

The annual Maine Audubon Loon Count takes place Saturday, July 19, at 7 a.m. More than 900 loon counters will participate in the annual project that gathers valuable data for Maine Audubon about the status of loons in the state. Volunteers interested in participating in this year’s loon count can contact Susan Gallo at sgallo@maineaudubon.org or call 781-6180 ext. 216. The deadline to join this year’s count is Thursday, July 17.

The Maine Loon Project was launched 31 years ago as a joint effort with Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to assess the status of loons in Maine. At that time, very little was known about the iconic bird, but repeated reports of fewer and fewer birds on Maine’s lakes and ponds spurred the development of a state-wide protocol to conduct a standardized count using “citizen scientist” volunteers. Over the past 31 years, that count, along with projects like habitat assessment and loon mortality studies, have given Maine Audubon much needed insight into the loon population and the many challenges loons face, including habitat degradation and disturbance, boats, predators and lead poisoning from lead-based fishing tackle.

Over the past 31 years, the estimate of the adult loon population in the southern half of Maine has seen a relatively steady increase, though the estimate has dipped several times over those three decades, most notably almost 10 percent in 2012. The 2013 estimate was just over 3,700 adults, moving the count back in the direction of a steady increase. There is, however, no apparent 30-year trend for the number of chicks estimated from the annual Loon Count. Numbers typically go up and down dramatically from year to year, never with any evidence of significant increases since the count began in 1983.

The 2013 count for chicks continued that trend, with an estimate of 324 chicks for the southern half of Maine, more than in 2012, but fewer than in 2011. Susan Gallo, director of the Maine Loon Project, noted there are a number of factors contributing to stagnant chick production. “We know that lead poisoning is the leading cause of death for adult loons in Maine, and although not a direct cause of death for chicks, chicks who lose a parent to lead poisoning are probably less likely to survive with only one parent left behind to care for them.”

There also a number of other threats on Maine’s lakes and ponds, from extreme rain events that flood nests to abundant predators to disturbance from boaters. New emerging diseases are increasingly a concern, as are changes in water quality that may result from climate change.

In 2013, loon counters answered additional questions on their survey forms about how many loons might be breeding on their lakes. Breeding loons will typically be in pairs or on their own, while non-breeders form large social groups. By differentiating these social groups from isolated pairs and individuals, Maine Audubon hopes to shed more light on the apparent disconnect between the adult and chick estimates. Since loons do not typically breed until they are 7 years old, they spend many years as “bachelors” (and bachelorettes) on Maine’s lakes and ponds. The additional questions will be on the survey forms in 2014 and over time, will help Maine Audubon better understand loon productivity and the size of the breeding population.

Tips for protecting loons

— Obey no-wake law within 200 feet of shore

— Use lead-free tackle; alternatives are made of steel, tin and bismuth

— Dispose of fishing line so it does not get tangled in a loons’ feet or bill

— If you live on a lake, use phosphorus-free fertilizer and plant shrubs as a buffer along the shoreline to reduce run-off

— If you see a loon on a nest, keep your distance and watch with binoculars

— Keep garbage out of reach of loon egg predators like skunks and raccoons.

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