As the 2012 loon count approaches (on July 21st), it’s a good time to reflect back on what the count has shown us so far, over so many years, and to celebrate last year’s record-high results. If you remember back to a year ago, we had a very similar start to our spring and summer. Lots of rain, high water levels, and not-so-warm temperatures made us think the summer would not be good for loons. In fact, I was prepared, as I sat down with the 2011 count results last fall, to face a major drop in numbers, especially for chicks.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the estimate of the adult population had jumped to an all-time high of 3,302 adults in the southern half of the state, an increase of about 2% from 2010. And imagine my even greater surprise when the chick estimate came out to 661, beating the previous high record from 2007 by almost 30%! I was so surprised at the results that I spent hours re-proofing the data, double checking that the lake size classifications were correct, and looking for errors on the spreadsheet. There were none to be found. It appears that the loons, and their chicks, dealt with the rain and changing water levels much better than we expected or that casual observations of loons would have lead us to believe. And that’s great news!
There are a couple of important lessons from this past year that I am trying to keep in mind as I look forward to more years of loon counting in the future. One is to remember the value of a long-term, science-based assessment, that uses the same methods to sample a population from year to year. We know that we miss loons each year, and we might even see loons that aren’t there. And some years we have more counters covering more lakes than others. But our sampling methods assure that even if the estimate is not exact, it is comparable over time and gives us an accurate long-term picture of how many loons there are on our lakes from year to year. Anecdotal or causal observations of a particular year, no matter how many you collect, cannot be counted on to give you an accurate picture of how the population is faring overall. The work of almost 1,000 loon counters on the morning of the third Saturday in July is incredibly valuable because it gives us a credible, unbiased assessment from year to year.
The other thing to remember, and to celebrate, is that loons in Maine are doing well. The population has grown steadily since the early 1980s, and it’s exciting to think that even with the rain pouring down all week, they’ll survive and thrive on Maine’s lakes and ponds this summer. It’s also exciting to think that our conservation efforts are working. I’m hopeful that everyone who encounters the work of the Maine Loon Project – our members reading Habitat or our loon counters browsing our webpage or the general public viewing a “State of Maine’s Loons” slideshow – that everyone walks away with a message about what loons need in Maine and what they can do to help. And I hope the growing numbers of Maine’s loons, and those actions, are part of the Maine Audubon’s Loon Project legacy.