Game Range Ramblin's

Game Range Articles by Mike Thompson,
FW&P wildlife biologist,
writing for the Pathfinder




Loon Nest a Success Story

July 20, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson,
Wildlife Biologist
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
"Game Range Ramblings" column Seeley Swan Pathfinder

One loon chick in western Montana owes its life to the cooperation of local ranchers, timber producers, state and federal agencies and other interested souls in the Seeley-Swan and Blackfoot Valleys.

As with all success stories, this one began with a spark of interest and awareness, which in this case was first provided by Geoff Foote. Geoff owns Meadow Springs Ranch, located north of Ovando, and is a trained wildlife biologist as well as rancher. In late May, Geoff observed a loon on a small lake in the vicinity of his ranch. As a partner in the large community effort to find and protect all loon nests each spring, Geoff immediately notified Tim Dykstra.

Tim is a newcomer to Montana, but not to loon country. Hailing from Michigan, Tim grew up with an appreciation for loons. Now a graduate student at the University of Montana, Tim seized the opportunity to serve as our area's first "Loon Ranger," a new seasonal position funded by the Montana Loon Society, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP), U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U. S. Forest Service, American Bird Conservancy and Avista Corporation. His job is to find and monitor all loon nests and chicks in our area, and to help educate the public about loons and their need for solitude while nesting. He's bunking at the Game Range until his appointment ends in late July.

Upon receiving Geoff's call, Tim sprang into action. Soon he was at the lake with other experienced loon watchers, Donna and Tim Love of Seeley Lake. As I understand the story, Donna spotted the first adult loon. "There's the other!" exclaimed Tim Love. "There's the nest!" Tim Dykstra quickly added.

Just like that, the newest loon nesting site became known to science.

It was right along the shoreline, constructed of grasses and reeds, all piled in a mound about six inches above the water surface. Tim saw two eggs in the nest, which is the usual number laid.

In the dreams of aspiring wildlife biologists, this is where the story normally ends. But, in the real world, there remains the matter of management. And, a very real management issue faced these loons and this nest. A logging operation was in progress in very close proximity.

Loons are especially sensitive to disturbance during the 28-day incubation period. While sitting on the nest hour after hour, day after day, the adults (usually the female, but sometimes the male) have plenty of time to think about the suitability of their surroundings for raising chicks. If they're not satisfied with the security of the area, and if there is too much disturbance, the adults are quick to cut their losses before the chicks hatch. It's as if they're saying, "Why waste any more effort here?"

People who appreciate loons in the western United States can ill afford to let many eggs go unhatched. Loon breeding pairs are found in only four states west of the Mississippi River, and Montana has the largest population. Sounds OK for Montana, until you consider that this "largest population" amounts to only about 200 birds. And, Montana typically produces only about 40 chicks per year.

So, it was with some concern that Donna and the Tims viewed the logging operation at this newest loon nest. The next step was to bring the welfare of the loons to the attention of the landowner. So, Tim Dykstra and Woody Baxter (FWP) phoned Plum Creek Timber Company.

As a result of the calls, the loon nest was next visited by Plum Creek managers Denny Sigars and Rett Parker, and Plum Creek biologist Brian Gilbert. The way I heard the story, the men had resigned themselves to failure at finding the loons or the nest until they spotted a bald eagle making strafing runs across a particular portion of the shoreline. As they marveled at the eagle flight display, one of the loons cut loose with the haunting loon wail.

Brian told me he was sure that the eagle was homing in on the loon. Tim later confirmed that although bald eagles are not known to attack adult loons, they will kill loon chicks. Tim says nesting loons will thoroughly ignore fish-eating osprey, but always respond strongly and protectively to the flight of an eagle. I'm told that Donna Love reported two bald eagles harassing a loon on the water until the loon dropped the fish it was carrying for the eagles to scavenge.


Once the Plum Creek guys located the loon nest, they set about the problem of rescheduling their timber harvest to meet the needs of the birds. Fortunately for all, there was work for the logging crew at a different site. So, Plum Creek agreed to immediately defer logging around the loon nest until the eggs hatched.


Brian Gilbert tells me that this loon nest will be added to Plum Creek's database of sensitive environmental sites. Every time Plum Creek foresters contemplate work in a particular timber stand, they consult this database for any special features that require consideration. This knowledge will allow Plum Creek to plan future management activities around the critical May-June nesting period, while minimizing costly disruptions in work schedules.


The good news came from Tim Dykstra on June 20. One chick had been produced, which Tim assures me is a normal result from a nest of two eggs. Once hatched, the adults and young are quite mobile and much more tolerant of disturbance. The young just hop on the back of an adult and ride along wherever they need to go.


And, now you know why we still have as many as 200 loons in Montana. Because Montanans still care about their loons. It really can make a difference.

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