Early Returns Encouraging On Yearly Loon Count

Jul 21, 2014

For a while, the iconic laughing call of the loon was rare in Vermont waters, but the bird population has been rebounding in recent years.

Saturday was the annual loon watch: More than 200 volunteers spread out across the state to survey loons. Eric Hanson, a conservation biologist with the Vermont Center for Ecostudies and the coordinator of the Vermont Loon Conservation project, joined Vermont Edition to talk about how this reclusive bird is faring in Vermont waters.

On the results of Saturday's loon watch

"Well, I'm hoping it went well. I won't really know for a while, just because the results are filtering in by email and the mail.

"I spent a good chunk of the day out surveying the small ponds that don't usually have loons or where I want to send too many volunteers unless they're really gung-ho. So I did 14 lakes throughout the day … I saw one [loon]. I was actually glad to see that one bird over in a little pond called Beebe Pond in Hubbardton. It was a young bird, a 1- or 2-year-old. We call them sub-adults … He came back early. Usually those guys spend the summers on the ocean, but this guy came to the area. But they're kind of low on the hierarchy of loons, and so if they go to a breeding lake they're going to get chased off pretty quickly."

On Vermont's loon population

"We're approaching 300 adults in the state of Vermont, which is a huge increase. Back just 15 years ago we were right around 100, and 15 years prior to that, 1983, we only counted 29.

"We're approaching 300 adults in the state of Vermont, which is a huge increase. Back just 15 years ago we were right around 100, and 15 years prior to that, 1983, we only counted 29." - Eric Hanson, Vermont Center for Ecostudies

"It is a decent, stable population. I'm hoping that actually things do start to level out. And we're seeing signs of that. If you go up to the lakes in north-central, northeastern Vermont, almost every large lake has loons on it now. So that's a sign of a good recovery. Hopefully, we actually see our productivity – I wouldn't say decline, but stabilize. Some indications of that are more nest failures due to … intruder loons, we call them. They come in, they disturb the parents, and they either don't get around to nesting or they have a failed nest. In some cases, the chicks get either killed or lost in the process of dealing with these intruders, as well as, sometimes adults actually get killed. I picked up two dead loons that were likely killed in fights two weeks ago."

On why loon competition is a good sign

"It's a sign of a healthy population. We're still seeing some expansion on some smaller ponds. They tend to be less successful on those smaller ponds, just because the nest sites aren't as good. A lot of the good nest sites are pretty much taken. The one place in the state where we probably still could see some expansion is in west-central Vermont … Lake Catherine up to Lake Hortonia. There's some good waters over there that could house the loons, and we're just not seeing loons utilize that water yet."

On the value of monitoring the rebounded population

"There's a lot of really good reasons for it, and one of them is just to keep a pulse on the population. If we're ever to start seeing a decline again, knowing where it's happening, why it's happening, to be able to react quickly to that. 

"It's hard to get people excited about things like riparian buffer strips of vegetation, or fish eggs and aquatic insects, [so it's helpful if] you can get people excited about loons, and help them understand that those things are really important for loons."

"But I think even more important than that is that loons are one of those iconic species that people really relate to. And ... we really need some efforts to get people to care about the water quality, the wildlife around the lakes, and I think loons could really be a symbol for that ... It's hard to get people excited about things like riparian buffer strips of vegetation, or fish eggs and aquatic insects, but if you can get people excited about loons, and help them understand that those things are really important for loons, I'm hoping that this program will evolve into a larger lake-scale program like that."

On why loons need so much space

"They're probably one of the heaviest birds for wing-surface area, and they have solid bones, so to get flying they need to go like a jet – they need to go fast. Cruising speed is 40, 50, even 60 miles per hour. And so they do a long runway across the water, and they usually need 100, 200 meters just to get off the water. But even then, after another few hundred meters, they'll only be a few feet off the water. If it's a small pond, they'll have to circle the pond four, five, six times to get above tree line. So they've got to be careful where they land, and occasionally we get birds that land on little farm ponds or streams, and they just can't get off. So we do try to help those birds when necessary."