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Give Our Loons
Some Room This Spring

Seeley Swan Pathfinder
May 20, 1999

by Mike Thompson,
Wildlife Biologist
MT Fish, Wildlife & Parks
Game Range column for the Pathfinder


I remember the first time I heard the haunting call of the Common Loon.

It was Memorial Day weekend, 1976, and three of us were backpacking from Spotted Bear to Big Salmon Lake. We had narrowly survived the harrowing drive between Hungry Horse and Spotted Bear Ranger Station in the junker known as the "Goatmobile" (driven by "The Goat," of course), and within the first hour of hiking had felt obliged to rescue the other member of our party after he slipped off a wet log into the cold, raging waters of a small creek swollen by melting snow to several times its normal volume.

Incidentally, I still marvel at our seasoned response to the latter incident. Unlike others who might have panicked at the sight of their companion tumbling into the whitewater, Goat and I calmly removed our packs to preserve our expedition's remaining dry provisions and cooly monitored the situation until we observed that one hand had slipped from the bobbing willow branch and both feet were now visible on the surface of the water. Only then did we grudgingly work our way to the shoreline and grab the flailing arm, arguing all the while over which of us would have to give up his change of clothes.

I also drew the short straw on tent accommodations and agreed to share my space with the soggy one. He had dried out by nightfall, but he was still a football and rugby player from Boston who had accumulated nearly zero life experience off paved or mowed surfaces. We had barely settled into our sleeping bags as the night fell black around us. Of course, it was at that moment, at Boston's first awareness that he was now helpless to resist any wild animal that might select him from its menu, that the wildest call in the Bob Marshall Wilderness erupted from the far end of Big Salmon Lake.

It was a marvelous experience, which was only enhanced by the thud of Boston's body dropping from the tent ceiling just moments afterward. Like an exclamation point at nightfall, the call of that loon was conclusive proof that we had indeed made it out of town.

So, thanks to Donna Love for triggering this trip down memory lane. It was her mailing of loon brochures on behalf of the Montana Loon Society that reminded me of my own personal connection with loons.

More important, the message in these brochures is that May and June are the most critical months in the life cycle of loons on the Clearwater Chain of Lakes and elsewhere in western Montana. It's nesting season. And, it's boating season.

According to statistics provided by Lynn Kelly of the Montana Loon Society, there are about 65 breeding pairs of loons in Montana. Of those, 24-26 pairs will raise 30-35 chicks in an average year. After spending two and one-half years on the Pacific coast, between San Francisco and San Diego, only 10-12 will survive to return to the areas where they were born.

Although we continue to enjoy the presence of loons locally and across northwest Montana, the population trend is not encouraging. Due to increased censusing efforts by the non-profit Montana Loon Society and volunteers, Lynn is seeing an increase in the number of lakes with adults being reported, but she is not seeing a corresponding increase in the number of lakes with chicks produced.

In fact, there are disturbing signs that we could lose loons along the Clearwater as recreational use of the lakes increases. One example is the fate of the Salmon Lake pair that was monitored last spring and summer. A pair was first verified on the lake on May 16. Floating signs around the nest site were erected earlieron May 3because large numbers of pike anglers wanted to be right at the inlet where the nest is located. Despite the presence of floating signs to keep boaters out of the critical nesting area, there were numerous and frequent violations, and the loons abandoned the territory in late June without fledging a chick.

Perhaps even more alarming is the scenario illustrated by the nest along the mid-shoreline of Seeley Lake. Lynn believes that this nesting territory was lost with the death or displacement of the pair that had habituated to increasing boat traffic over the years. In this regard, loons may not be that different from humans. We tend to adapt to the increasing amount of traffic that passes in front of our houses over a period of years, but when it comes time to sell we may find it difficult to find someone who wants to buy our place along a busy roadway. Likewise, just because loons occupy nests on busy boating lakes today doesn't mean that their offspring will find these conditions suitable when they arrive to choose a nest site three years later. It is suspected that this is the process by which local loon populations were eventually lost in northern California, Oregon and parts of Washington.

On the positive side, Woody Baxter tells me that a pair was present and nesting on Saturday when he set out the floating signs at Upsata Lake. This lake has been an exceptionally reliable producer of loon chicks over the years, but this streak was interrupted last year with the loss of one of the adults in the pair. This year's nest location is at the north end of Upsata, away from the nest site used by the previous pair. Hopefully, it will be as successful.

The key to the continued presence of loons along the Clearwater Chain of Lakes is awareness and cooperation by people. Lynn is quick to say that most people are interested in the loons and want to help. But, serious problems result when too many others ignore the warnings on the floating signs. Is it too much to ask that people stay out of the few, small, nesting sanctuaries on our lakes? It really does matter.

According to Woody Baxter, who is an accomplished birder and naturalist himself, "If not for Lynn Kelly, we wouldn't have loons on the Clearwater Chain of Lakes today." We owe her our thanks, and our respect for the program to establish and enforce nesting sanctuaries on the lakes. For more information, you can pick up a brochure at the Seeley Lake Ranger Station, or write the Montana Loon Society at 6525 Rocky Point Road, Polson, MT 59860-6949.

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