Since 1983, dedicated Maine Audubon volunteers have descended on their local lakes and ponds with a pair of binoculars and a shared passion — protecting the Maine loon and its habitat.

The 30th annual loon count takes place  Saturday, July 20, at 7 a.m.

More than 900 loon counters will participate in the annual project that gathers valuable data for Maine Audubon and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife 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 Maine Loon Project was launched 30 years ago as a joint effort with the MDIFW 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 standard count. Over the past thirty 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 the loons face, including habitat degradation and disturbance, motorized boats, predators and lead poisoning from lead-based fishing tackle.

While the population of adult loons in the southern half of the state has slowly and steadily increased, from about 1,800 at the start of the count to just under 3,000 in 2012, chick numbers are worrisome.

Susan Gallo, director of the Maine Loon Project at Maine Audubon, noted that the number of chicks in the southern half of Maine has fluctuated slightly up and down from year to year, but has not significantly changed since 1983.

“Adult loons can live 25 to 30 years and they don’t usually breed until they are at least 7 years old. The lack of growth in the number of chicks is alarming when we look at the long-term sustainability of our adult loon population.”

The 2012 loon count estimated there were 2,977 loons in Maine (down from 3,300 in 2011). Gallo noted that this is normal.

“What is more concerning,” she said, “is the drastic decrease in number of chicks last year.” In 2011, there were 619 chicks, an all-time high in the 30-year history of the project. In 2012, however, there were only 178 chicks. “This is a significant decrease — over 70 percent — and is cause for alarm,” noted Gallo. “Right now, it is unclear why the numbers are so low. This year’s loon count numbers will help us determine if this is the start of a trend, or if 2011 was an off year.” Results from the 2013 loon count will be available this fall.

The volunteer work performed by loon counters has also helped move forward important legislation that reduces loon mortality caused by lead poisoning from lead-based fishing jigs and sinkers. In 2002, the Maine State Legislature passed a law that banned the sale of lead fishing sinkers one-half ounce or less. The law, along with an extensive outreach campaign and multi-year lead-tackle exchange program, helped increase both the availability of nontoxic alternatives at retailers and also anglers’ willingness to try these new products. This past June, the Legislature passed another law that bans the sale and use of lead sinkers one ounce or less, as well as bare lead-headed jigs 2.5-inches long or less. The law is phased in, and will not go into effect until 2016.