Loon Watch 2000
By Donna Love
Common loons are goose-size diving birds known for their black and white breeding plumage and haunting calls.
They mostly live in Canada, but about 200 make Montana their home for the summer. They are listed as a "Sensitive Species" because there are so few of them.
About half of Montana's loons form nesting pairs. Most nest north of Missoula and west of the Continental Divide. Occasionally a few birds are seen east of the Rocky Mountains.
Last year Montana had 29 successful nests that produced 42 chicks. In the fall loon chicks migrate to the ocean where they stay for three years.
Chick production is important because only about 30 percent of the hatched chicks survive life on the ocean to return to their inland lakes.
That means that out of the 42 chicks hatched last year only 12 or 13 will return to our state. These will become our nesting loons of the future.
The state's production was average for recent years, but the Clearwater Drainage had a disappointing season. Only three of our five lakes produced a total of four chicks.
That's low. The drainage usually averages seven chicks and has had as many as nine.
It is known that loon nests fail naturally about once every four years. Do our numbers reflect "one of those years" or should we be concerned?
Here's our loons' story. You decide.
Loon Lake Stats
The loon lakes in the Clearwater Drainage include Salmon, Placid, Seeley, Alva and Rainy Lake.
All are capable of supporting loon families. One other lake, Inez, is big enough, but it is no longer viable because it has not had nesting loons since 1979 when a high concentration of homes destroyed their nesting habitat.
Salmon Lake has also been unsuccessful for several years. Loons last nested there in 1997, but the nest has not produced chicks since 1996.
The reason for this is not known. Early on it was thought that aggressive bald eagles caused their lack of production. More recently human disturbances (boaters and fishermen inside the loon buoys) are sited as the possible cause.
Nesting is the loon's most critical time. A loon cannot defend itself easily on land so if a disturbance comes near they slide off the nest into the water.
This leaves the eggs without protection from weather or predators. If the disturbance stays too long the nest may be abandoned.
After the chicks hatch, loon parents can move their family around the lake as necessary, but keeping their nests sites undisturbed is important.
Thankfully, we still have four remaining loon lakes, but each has their own set of complications.
Placid Lake is surrounded by state land with a host of summer cabin leases, though most of the cabins are not used until later in the summer.
The fun (and scientifically important) thing about Placid is both the female and male are banded. (13 of Montana's loons were banded in a banding program, which took place in 1996 and 1997.) Every year since, Placid Lake's loons have returned to nest.
Seeley, Alva and Rainy Lake are slightly more protected because uninhabited Forest Service land surrounds them, but spring camping and fishing during nesting season is increasing.
It is unfortunate for Alva that the Forest Service put their campground at the north end of the lake where the boat launch is directly across the lake from the nest site. This makes the nest highly susceptible to human disturbance.
Rainy Lake is a smaller lake that is designated "non-motorized," but it has a Forest Service "dispersed campsite," that gets a lot of use in the summer, too.
Loon buoys on both lakes help keep the nest undisturbed, but educating the public about obeying the signs is needed.
Seeley Lake, the largest of our lakes, has already lost two nesting territories.
Old-timers tell of a long lost nest in the southern bay. Another nest site north of Big Larch Campground was used until 1996.
Nevertheless, Seeley still has one loon territory in the backwaters of the lake on its north end. This is one of the most easily protected sites in the drainage because it is surrounded by marshy waters and ringed by thick willows.
This is where we will begin.
The year started as usual for Seeley Lake. The first loon was seen on April 13. The loon could yodel, a male loon's territorial call, so we knew it was a male.
Loons are most vocal in the spring while defining and defending their territory. On the evening of April 26 three loons were on the lake making a racket.
Two of the loons started charging around standing upright using their wings in a rowing motion to help propel themselves across the water. As they ran they made large swooping curves moving back and forth in an unconventional figure eight pattern.
At first it was amazing, then comical and then we wondered just how long they could keep it up. They continued for half an hour non-stop. Finally the one being chased flew away.
Year's ago people thought this behavior was the loon's mating dance. Now we know that male loons do this to prove which one is strongest.
Our winner rejoined the other loon. Was this the same pair as last year? Maybe, but without leg bands it would be impossible to tell.
The adult female and her two chicks on Seeley Lake were also banded in 1997, but the adult was found dead off the coast of California in 1998. The chicks have yet to surface.
On May 12 our pair tried to nest on a small peninsula of grass and reeds by the inlet of the Clearwater River at a site used years ago.
If they had stayed there it would have been hard to protect them from boater disturbance especially as canoes on the Clearwater Canoe Trail paddled out of the river onto the lake.
When the high-elevation runoff occurred in mid-May the loons moved into the backwaters.
We couldn't see the nest from the Forest Service Viewing Blind as we had in past years, but we were fairly sure our loons were nesting because we could see them coming and going from a spot hidden behind an island of cattails.
Hi Ho, Silver, Away!
In the eastern United States several states hire "loon rangers" to care for their loons. Loon Rangers count loons, identify nesting territory, sign nest sites and help educate the public about loons.
The Montana Loon Society (MLS), Montana's loon monitoring group, has long dreamed of a time when we might have our own Loon Ranger. This past summer our dream finally came true.
The Common Loon Working Group (CLWG), which formed in 1998, provided the vehicle for it to happen. The group, made up of several wildlife biologists around the state, applied for a grant to start the Loon Ranger Program.
With money mostly from Avista Corporation and Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) our Loon Ranger Pilot Program got underway. The Clearwater Drainage and Ovando area, which also has several loon lakes, were chosen to receive the first Loon Ranger.
Notices advertising the six-week job were sent to schools and universities in the area. Tim Dykstra, a graduate student in Ornithology at the University of Montana was hired.
Tim's training started in May. His first weekend on the job included helping wildlife biologist, Lynn Kelly (Montana's "Loon Lady" and President of MLS), put loon buoys on Alva, Seeley, Salmon, and Placid Lake, as well as on Upsata Lake in the Ovando area.
The next week we received a call from Gael Bissell, the wildlife biologist in Kalispell who heads the CLWG.
Two loons were seen on Little Doney Lake, a little known lake north of Ovando. Confirmation of a nest site was immediately needed because the lake sat on Plum Creek Timber Company land in the middle of an ongoing timber cut.
Most loon lakes in the Ovando area, with the exception of Upsata, are on private land and require little public management. The lakes are usually small in size and out of the public's reach.
Little Doney was just such a lake, but possible disturbance from the logging operation made is susceptible to a nest failure.
Geof Foote, the MLS Ovando Area Coordinator who had reported the Little Doney pair was away, and Lynn wouldn't be able to come over for two weeks. Was there anything we could do to help?
We made arrangements to take the Loon Ranger to Little Doney on the next weekend, which also happened to be the day of the Montana Spring Loon Count.
After counting loons on Marshall Lake, high on the eastside of the Mission Mountains (no loons), Seeley Lake (two loons) and Tote Lake on the way to Cozy Corners (no loons) we met Tim in Ovando to accompany him to the site. Lindsay, his fiancée joined us.
A Chick Named Tim
It would have been hard to find Little Doney without my husband, Tim's help, but he led us right to it. When we reached Big Doney, next to Little Doney, we searched for loons, but didn't find any.
The surrounding ranchers use Big Doney for irrigation so fluctuations in water level leave it loonless.
As we approached Little Doney on foot we heard a loon call. We kept our distance and skirted the small 10-acre heart-shaped lake.
When we could see a good portion of the lakeshore we stopped. We were expecting a long search, but Loon Ranger Tim, using his binoculars, found the nest before we even had time to put up our spotting scopes.
It was a beautiful nest. It wasn't at all like the hastily matted down muddy half nests that our Seeley Lake pair always built. This was a full mound of golden yellow vegetation with a perfect saucer shaped depression on top that held two large olive green loon eggs.
The parents were swimming watchfully near the nest. We backed away even further and one loon returned to sit on the eggs.
Lindsay and I told the Tims that if the eggs survived we would name the chicks after them.
After informing Gael of our findings she contacted Plum Creek Timber Company. In a generous act of conservation, Plum Creek suspended logging in the area until the chicks hatched.
On June 13 one chick was seen swimming in the lake with both adults. Loon Ranger Tim retrieved the remaining egg on June 16 for testing. We named the lone loon chick, Tim, thus fulfilling our promise to both Tims.
On Sunday, May 21, Loon Ranger Tim, once again accompanied by Lindsay (We got two loon rangers for the price of one.) confirmed the sight of our nest on Seeley Lake by canoeing a short distance into the backwaters, spying the nest and beating a hasty retreat.
The nest was right where we suspected tucked behind the cattails and unable to be seen from the viewing blind. We would just have to wait a month to see if the chicks hatched.
In the meantime, two loons were seen on Salmon Lake in May, but no nesting attempt was ever made and the loon buoys were removed in June. For the rest of the summer only one loon was occasionally seen on Salmon.
The first nest attempt at Placid, Alva and Rainy Lake failed. It is unclear why. It was a dry spring and some speculate that the nests succumbed to low water levels, which can be as harmful as flooding.
Another theory is that is was a warm spring, thereby causing more human use of the lakes.
Loons can renest if it is early enough in the spring, but the second nest is less likely to produce chicks. All three of the nesting pairs tried again. Alva Lake's second nest failed right away.
Loon Ranger Tim and I paddled to the nest to see if we could find any evidence as to why it failed. We did not find any proof of disturbance or loon eggs or shells so it is impossible to say why it failed.
Loons only lay two eggs, which are incubated for 28/29 days. We now had only three pairs of nesting loons in the drainage. The loons on Seeley Lake were still incubating on their first nest, and Placid and Rainy were staying with their second nest attempt.
We would just have to wait to see how the nests faired.
To Be Continued Next Week