Pretty much everyone who lives or vacations in the northern parts of the Midwest or New England is familiar with the otherworldly call of the common loon. It's one of the things that makes you feel like you're truly "up north,” so I was pleased to be able to participate in the annual Loon Watch event last weekend. This survey, spearheaded locally by Northland College, allows citizen scientists to provide researchers with real-time data on loon movements and populations. Loons are very sensitive to human activity, habitat disturbance and climate change, and getting a snapshot of where they're breeding and how they're responding to their environment is important for conservation efforts.
Common loons are completely aquatic birds that only come ashore to nest, and their nests often are floating on the shore so the parents can approach them from below. They can't really walk on land and can become stranded on beaches or wet pavement that resembles a lake or pond from above. Like tiny 747s, loons need a lot of distance in order to take off, and an inexperienced loon can become stranded on a small body of water like a retention pond. Despite these vulnerabilities, they often adapt well to living on busy, developed lakes provided there's enough wild shoreline away from boat wakes for them to nest successfully. Locally, Lake Namakagon and Lake Owen both support loon populations. Many lake homeowners and visitors consider loons to be an important part of their experience and try to support them with good land management and boating practices. I also see them pretty frequently around Chequamegon Bay, especially closer to fall when they're getting ready to migrate.
Loons can be mistaken for other birds like mergansers and cormorants from a distance, but come a little closer and their bright plumage and vocalizations are evident. Loon families hoot at each other and sing quieter versions of their characteristic calls that you can hear up close. If you're lucky, you may see a loon parent with babies riding on its back. A loon pair with two chicks can consume a half ton of fish by the time the babies are fully independent. They're fairly long-lived compared to many wild birds and don't start breeding until they're around 6 years old. Common loons migrate to coastal areas in winter and occasionally to southern inland reservoirs and lakes. They move north as the ice melts, so when we have an early spring you might see them still sporting their gray winter plumage.
I picked Beaver Lake in southern Ashland County to do my loon survey, since it's convenient to me and no one had surveyed it for 15 years. Beaver Lake is a 35-acre wilderness lake in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, alongside the North Country Trail and a small campground. I decided not to camp out there thanks to the severe thunderstorms and tornadoes that were forecast (correctly) the night before, so I started my survey a little later than I'd planned. My instructions said I should make sure I had enough vantage points to see the entire shoreline, and I was able to do this from the boat landing and from a lake overlook along the trail. It was a very warm, muggy, still morning and my can of OFF! came in very handy. I watched the shoreline with binoculars for a few hours. I observed plenty of songbirds, including a yellow-bellied sapsucker that was accompanied by a ruby-throated hummingbird feeding out of the holes its larger companion drilled in a birch tree. What I didn't observe were loons, or any waterfowl for that matter. As a birdwatcher this was disappointing, but as a loon surveyor I was still able to provide important information. Knowing where the loons aren't is as important as knowing where they are. And I was able to enjoy a lovely morning out in the woods for a good cause. I plan on doing this again next year, and you can too. Learn more at https://www.northland.edu/centers/soei/loonwatch/.