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Loon Watch 1999 - Part 1

Lynn Kelly, back, known as the Montana Loon Lady for her research
of loons over several years, and Donna Love who assists her work now
in the Seeley Lake area, are at the spotting scope in Seeley Lake.

May 4, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

By Donna Love

(Editor's note: the following report and photos by Donna Love on loons and their nesting habits and population in the Seeley Swan Chain of Lakes will appear in three installments over the next three weeks.)


Common loons are goosed-sized black and white diving birds known for their striking black and white plumage and haunting calls. They live in the northern half of the Northern Hemisphere. Montana is a part of their most southern breeding grounds. Last year 35 chicks were hatched and raised on 26 Montana lakes.

At one time Colorado, California and Oregon all had nesting loons. Washington has 10 nesting loon pairs and is working toward having them put on their state's endangered list. Idaho is struggling to keep their 14 loons. Wyoming has so few it doesn't publish where they are. Montana has a population of around 200. The increase in water recreation, shoreline development, introduction of non-native species and springtime angling in nesting areas has caused concern for Montana's loons.

The Clearwater River Drainage nestled between the lower Mission Mountains and Swan Range is important loon habitat. With six substantial lakes in the drainage including Salmon, Placid, Seeley, Inez, Alva and Rainy Lake, it has historically produced seven to nine chicks per year. In 1999 five chicks were hatched on three of these lakes. This is their story.

Loon Watch 99

Loons winter on the ocean. In Montana they usually return to their summer breeding grounds in April when the ice goes off. Bald eagles share the same habitat as loons due to their common link to their prey base, fish. By the time our loons returned the eagle pair at Salmon Lake had been on their nest since late February. Seeley's eagles settled into nesting on March 12. When the eagles returned to Seeley only a small circle of ice at the mouth of Deer Creek had melted. By April 19 the north end of the Seeley was ice-free. Complete ice off was officially declared on April 25.

The first loon was seen on April 23. Our lone loon contentedly fished on the lake unconcerned that he was alone. He could yodel, aggressive calls made only by males. The unmistakable call sounds much like a seagull's cry. Research indicates that male loons have distinct yodel patterns that don't change with time. If an electro-sonogram of our male's yodel was compared to a recording of last year's yodel it would reveal if he were the same loon. Since banding can be stressful to loons, recording yodels can be a useful management tool. Due to their distinct yodel patterns it is also speculated that loons can distinguish and recognize the calls of individual birds.

In early May, Lynn Kelly, Montana's "Loon Lady," who monitors Montana's loons for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP), made her annual spring tour of lakes. She reported that loon pairs had returned to Salmon, Alva, Placid and Rainy Lake. Inez had one loon. A pair was present on Inez for a short time between May 22 and 30. Nesting signs were placed around the northwest corner of the lake. Debris was cleared away from possible nesting sites, but the pair did not stay to nest. Inez has not had nesting loons since 1979 when the high concentration of homes on the lake caused the loss of suitable nest sites.

Unrequited Love

The Seeley loon remained alone for four more weeks. The fact that he returned before females is not unusual. Male loons often return to their summer breeding grounds earlier than females. It was unusual that he was alone so long. On May 11 two other loons arrived. Loons return to the same territory year after year throughout their thirty-year life span. You might say they are married to the lake rather than to each other. If one of the nesting pair doesn't return due to death or illness the remaining loon will pick a different mate. If something happens to both of them, a new pair may take over the territory.

Seeley's three loons enjoyed each other's company for a couple of weeks until Cupid drew back his bow and chose two to pair up. For several days the third loon tried to remain with them, but they aggressively chased it away. Eventually the third loon left and our pair began their courtship rituals of bill dipping, circling and diving together.

Working Groups

An important way to insure that Montana will always have loons is to make sure that they continue to hatch and raise chicks here. To accomplish their part of the deal loons work hard. Many people around the state work hard too. This year bought the formation of the Montana Common Loon Working Group (CLWG), which undertook the technical aspects of loon management.

One of the first things the CLWG did was instigate a Spring Loon Count. On the first weekend in May, Montana Loon Society (MLS) members counted loons on their lakes. This was the first year that a spring count was conducted. Similar to the Loon Day count in July, the spring count is a supplemental count and provides helpful information on mating and nesting. In the Clearwater Drainage, my husband, Tim, and I counted a pair of loons each on Alva, Rainy and Seeley Lake.

Destination Unknown

During this time Lynn received a report that a Yellow-billed loon in winter plumage was seen on Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park on April 24. To verify that it was a Yellow-billed loon, Lynn traveled to Glacier. Yellow-billed loons breed in the high Arctic tundra and winter on the pacific coast and are occasionally seen inland. They are similar to Common loons in color, but they are larger, have bright yellow bills and a definite bump on their foreheads. Two previous confirmed sightings of Yellow-billed loons in Montana occurred in January of 1987 at Giant Springs on the Missouri River near Great Falls and in November of 1994 at Fort Peck. Lynn's visit confirmed that the loon in Glacier was a Yellow-billed. It would have been fun to see. One would normally have to travel to northern Canada or Alaska to see one. The Yellow-billed loon stayed until May 2 and disappeared.

Pray for Rain

Montana's nesting loons are helped most by cool, rainy weather. This usually keeps water recreation out of nesting territory until late June when the nesting season is over. This year on the weekend before Memorial Day the temperatures soared into the eighties. Next to flooding, which can wash eggs off nests, unusually warm, spring weather is harmful because it encourages water enthusiasts to be on the lakes during nesting season.

The warm weather caused predictable results at Salmon Lake. Saturday afternoon fifteen watercraft ranging from rubber rafts to speedboats were counted at the north end of the lake above Sourdough Island. The Loon Nesting Sanctuary signs were in place. A jet skier used them as an obstacle course. Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) sited the operator.

Salmon Lake, the last lake of size at the lower end of the Clearwater Drainage is little more than a wide spot in the river. It is not more than a fourth of a mile wide at its widest. It snakes along a narrow canyon for about five miles. It isn't deep as is evident by its many islands. It is lower in elevation than the upper lakes and is one of the first lakes to thaw in spring.

Salmon's loons had been observed in courtship behavior the week before the hot weekend. Over that weekend only one loon was seen. It was hoped that the other was on the nest, but that was never verified. The following week no loons were found on Salmon. One loon was seen on May 30, but the pair never returned. It is not known where they went or if they nested elsewhere. Salmon's loons have not successfully raised chicks since 1995, but until this year they have always had a nesting pair. The situation will be closely watched this year. Since loons return to their natal lake failure to produce chicks means a future crop of young birds will not identify with that lake.

Pure Pressure

MFWP and the Forest Service recognize the increasing human pressure on the Clearwater Drainage. They are taking a "heads-up" attitude towards our lakes. Last year they co-sponsored a water safety officer. The officer's duties included enforcing MFWP boating and fishing regulations, as well as enforcing Forest Service natural resource regulations. The Water Safety Officer will monitor our lakes again this year, especially on weekends. With our growing human population they are also taking a serious look at Montana's long standing water regulations to see what needs to be updated.

Another problem for Salmon Lake is Highway 83, which wends along the canyon wall just above the lake for most of its length. Last year the Highway Department cleared the cut-slope of avalanche debris at the same time as the hot weather. With the narrow lake, the echo of the canyon, and the sound carrying capacity of water the intrusion could have further stressed the loons. Traffic has never stopped loons from nesting on Salmon before, but it illustrates a point. Citizens of Seeley will have to be careful that the Salmon Lake portion of the scheduled widening of Highway 83 from Clearwater Junction to Seeley not take place during critical loon nesting season.

(To be continued next week)

Loon Watch 1999 Part I -- Loon Watch 1999 Part II -- Loon Watch 1999 Part III

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