Oh those Loons!

More than the source of that unmistakable mournful cry in the wilderness, the loon is a sentinel species, an indicator of the health and stability of lake ecosystems. In 1978, the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute of Northland College began LoonWatch, a program to protect loons in the north woods. At that time, the common loon’s range had been reduced to one-third of its historic range. It was estimated that there were 1,300 adult loons and 258 chicks in Wisconsin.

LoonWatch Volunteer Monitoring Programs

For the past 32 years, LoonWatch has used an active volunteer network of “Loon Rangers” as its primary tool. The Annual Lakes Monitoring Program (ALMP) volunteers work as population monitors and environmental educators, and have been the field force that has provided the Institute with data, and contributed to environmental awareness.

Conducted every five years since 1985, LoonWatch has directed the Wisconsin Loon Population Survey (WLPS), a one-day survey that tracks the population trend of Wisconsin’s loons. This survey provides valuable data on randomly selected lakes, and engages citizen volunteers.

In 1990, Wisconsin’s loon population was estimated at over 2,400 adults and 600 chicks. At that time, LoonWatch widened its focus with a greater concentration on the health of northern lakes. Education programs were geared to understanding ecosystems and the characteristics that initially attracted both loons and people. LoonWatch also began examining the human activities that threatened the health of lakes and the sensitive loons: shoreline development, recreational use, toxic chemicals, and acid rain.

Vulnerable for many reasons, the common loon’s mesmerizing call remains an early warning system for those who treasure healthy northern lakes.

LoonWatch’s “Get the Lead Out” Program

Since 2006, LoonWatch has been managing a campaign entitled Get the Lead Out! The program’s mission, to encourage anglers to use lead-free fishing tackle, consists of educating the public through presentations, displays, literature, tackle exchanges, and lead tackle drop off sites.

Ingestion of lead tackle is the leading cause of loon deaths in many US states. Loons often ingest lead tackle lost on lake bottoms, mistaking them for pebbles, in order to aid in digestion. Some loons also dive for live bait and swallow hook, fishing line and sinker altogether. Within a few weeks these birds die from lead poisoning. Herons, ducks, swans, and other water birds often suffer the same fate. Eagles may catch and eat a fish that has ingested lead tackle, leading to its demise as lead is passed on through the food chain.

Prevention of lead poisoning is simple: dispose of your old lead tackle properly at a local waste facility and replace it with a non-toxic alternative.

The Gulf Oil Spill

One of many reasons Wisconsin’s common loons are vulnerable is because they depend on healthy ecosystems in two different geographical areas: northern breeding lakes, and the nutrient rich waters of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastal areas. The common loon — whose adult numbers in Wisconsin are 3,400, in Minnesota 12,050 and in Michigan more than 650 — migrates to the Gulf of Mexico in September, October, November, and possibly even December. The majority of the loons migrating to the Gulf Coast will spend time between Texas and the Florida Keys.

Most of Wisconsin’s adult loons had flown north before last year’s Gulf oil spill struck, but many of their offspring remained behind. Loons that hatched in 2008 and 2009 were in the Gulf during the entire spill. They usually don’t make the trip north until their third year. Now many are asking experts the same questions about their loons: Did they migrate to the Gulf or Atlantic coast? Will fewer of them come back to their nesting lakes?

And experts have to give the frustrating response that they don’t know the impact of the oil spill yet, and it will take many years to understand the effect of this disaster. It will certainly take years of research and monitoring to learn the long-term impacts oil and chemical dispersants have on loon physiology and behavior. When first year loons make their first migration to the Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic coast, they do not return to their northwoods lakes for another 3 to 4 years. The number of loons on Northern lakes this summer and the next few summers may be most telling – seeing whether the classes of 2008 and 2009 that lived through the spill are as strong as they should be and enough to keep the loon population stable. Loons may not mate until age 5 or 6, so it may be years before the decline shows up as a decline in nesting pairs.

Adult loons that nested in Northern lakes and avoided the spill last summer may be at risk this winter. Because loons can dive 200 feet to find fish, they may be feeding in areas where millions of gallons of oil settled on the Gulf floor. Their food source may be tainted or gone. After a loon dives through the oil, it will ingest the oil by preening its feathers and will lose its ability to keep its downy insulating feathers dry — thus resulting in hypothermia.

The value of long-term monitoring programs is evident when a natural or man-made disaster occurs. It is essential to have both old and new data to spot trends that may require action. Both data sets from the 2010 ALMP and WLPS will be useful for examining the oil spill impact on Wisconsin’s loons. The loons monitored in the 2010 ALMP and WLPS had not yet migrated to their Southern destinations – the Gulf of Mexico or the southeast Atlantic Coast. This summer we are doing a special 2011 Wisconsin Loon Population Survey to help determine the impact of the oil spill on the WI loon population.

*If you would like to participate in either LoonWatch monitoring program, contact Erica LeMoine, LoonWatch Coordinator. Contact: loonwatch@northland.edu or 715-682-1220

One Lead Split Shot – Enough to Kill a Twelve Pound Loon!

Lead poisoning from ingested tackle usually occurs in one of two ways, a lead jig head is swallowed by a fish, or lost lead tackle is picked up along with small stones and grit from the bottom of lakes to help digest food. Fish, loons, eagles, trumpeter swans, and many other wildlife species are consuming lead in one or both of these ways, and the results can be fatal.