FALMOUTH — Rising early on the third Saturday in July has become a tradition for thousands of Mainers who participate in the annual count to determine the health of the state’s loon population.
“Loon counters have an endless enthusiasm for loon conservation,” said Susan Gallo, wildlife biologist at Maine Audubon.
She said the annual count often has multiple generations of families taking part, and has also become a chance for neighbors to meet and share their love of loons.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of the count, which began when Mainers became concerned about the declining population, Gallo said.
Over the past several years the adult loon population has stabilized and “the loon population has been rising steadily, and the count shows they’re doing much better,” Gallo said.
She said the population has bounced back in large part because of protective measures that have been put in place, including a relatively new law that bans the use of lead fishing tackle.
Gallo said Maine Audubon also encourages fishermen to dispose of all fishing lines so loons don’t get tangled. She also said for many years lakeside residents have been asked to use phosphorus-free fertilizer and to plant shrubs to help reduce run-off.
In addition, according to Gallo, implementation of a no-wake law within 200 feet of shore has been extremely beneficial to loons, especially in protecting their nests from being flooded.
Other ways to protect loons that Audubon has pushed for include teaching people to keep their distance from loon nests and to keep garbage out of the reach of predators, like skunks and raccoons.
Gallo said “we didn’t really know anything about loons” when the loon count first started, but with the help of the loon counters, “we’ve been building up our knowledge of what they need and what’s good for them.”
In particular, she said, improved water quality and the introduction of stricter shoreland zoning rules by municipalities has made a big difference, along with boating and fishing regulations created with loons in mind.
“Loons are attractive and charismatic” birds, Gallo said, which she believes is part of their appeal, along with their unusual calls. She also said that a strong loon population is a good indicator of overall lake health.
“The number of loons is a good indicator of water quality and a healthy fish population,” Gallo said. “Loons are among the first to be impacted by invasive aquatics,” for example, which is why she called them “a good sentinel species for healthy lakes.”
She said each year loon counters go out on lakes south of the 45th parallel to count the numbers of adults and chicks. In 2017, she said, counters tallied 1,816 adults and 182 chicks on 311 lakes across the southern half of the state.
Using that count as a baseline, Gallo said last year Audubon projected a statewide population of 2,817 adults and 453 chicks.
In all, she reported, “The number of adult loons estimated for 2017 is virtually unchanged from the prior two years,” but she added, “the most recent three years remain lower than the prior five-year period, which averaged just over 3,100 adults.
This year’s loon count takes place 7-7:30 a.m. on Saturday, July 21, when more than a thousand volunteers are expected to get out their binoculars and head out on the water to seek out loons and their chicks.
Gallo admits it takes “some skill” to ensure a counter is not including the same loons more than once. But, she said, what makes it easier is that loons are generally territorial and they don’t stray far from their nests at this time of year.
New volunteers are always welcome, Gallo said. Anyone wishing to take part should contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 781-6180, ext. 216. She needs names, address and the lake or general area where volunteers would like to count.
Gallo called the loon count “a true tradition” and said her hope for volunteers is that they not only enjoy it, but “ideally get involved in other ways. ”
“It’s a great entry point,” she said. “Counting is just the tip of the iceberg of what they can do.” Being involved in the count she said, can help connect those interested with other ways to advocate.
“People do the loon count because they’re passionate and care about their local lakes and this is a way to contribute,” said Gallo, calling those who participate in the count year after year “an engaged group that is really passionate about loon conservation.”
While there are five species of loons in the world, Maine Audubon said the common loon is the only bird that breeds in Maine. Gallo said loons are “very long-lived” and the oldest nesting loon she knows of in the state is 31 years old.
She said loons don’t begin breeding until they’re about 7, and of the nearly 3,000 adult loons it’s impossible to know what percentage are actually breeding. “There’s often a long lag between when we count a chick and it comes back to nest,” Gallo said.
According to Gallo, loons are migratory birds that leave inland lakes when they begin to freeze over in late fall. Many loons winter along the East Coast, with some in the far South wintering on freshwater bodies.
While it takes loons at least a quarter mile of open water before they can take flight, once in the air they can reach speeds of 90 miles per hour, according to Audubon.
The most important thing Gallo hopes the counters and others understand is that “what humans do is directly connected,” to the health and diversity of the loon population.
“We’re absolutely concerned,” she added of the rollback of various environmental protections on the federal level. “This is a huge issue and we have to be active and engaged with our Congressional delegation on anything that affects water quality.”
A loon with her chicks. This year marks the 35th anniversary of the annual Maine Loon Count. Thanks to measures taken to protect the birds, there are now nearly 3,000 adult loons in the state, according to Maine Audubon.