Final results from Maine Audubon’s Annual Loon Count for 2022 estimate that adult loon numbers dipped slightly this year but chick numbers are up! Long-term trends continue to show a strong adult population that has grown steadily over the years, and a stable population of chicks over time.
The annual loon count takes place on the third Saturday of July, and in 2022, more volunteers than ever—more than 1600—gathered up their count forms and binoculars and headed out to the lakes. This is a real testament to how much people care about Maine’s loons and lakes.
With fantastic calm and clear weather, volunteer loon counters surveyed loons on 361 lakes, which is the largest number of lakes surveyed since the Maine Audubon Loon Count began in 1983.
The results: Estimates for the adult population are down, from 3446 last year to 3057 this year. Annual fluctuations are common, with numbers going up and down depending on numerous factors, and the general trend is upward so there’s no cause for alarm. (Please note: These estimates are for areas south of the 45th parallel, roughly south of a line from Rangeley to Calais, where lakes are generally accessible by local residents and enough lakes are counted to make a reliable estimate. Many more loons nest on lakes across the northern half of the state that are not included in these estimates.)
However, it’s clear that motorized water crafts (from wake boats to jet skis) that do not follow state laws, like the law prohibiting wake-producing speeds within 200 feet of shore and islands, continue to pose a serious threat to Maine’s loons. Trauma, especially from boat strikes (when a boat collides with a loon) is now the leading cause of adult loon deaths in Maine, above lead poisoning from ingesting lost and discarded lead tackle. Loon counters also continued to report loon nests that were flooded and eggs that were washed out of the nest by boat wakes.
The good news is that chick estimates are up from 224 last year to 298 this year. Last year’s lower number of chicks is another reminder that the population fluctuates from year to year and that loons don’t necessarily breed or breed successfully every year. The annual count helps us see the long-term trends amidst the yearly ups and downs. We’re glad to see the increase and attribute it both to natural fluctuations and to the dedication of many, many loon counters helping to protect loons on their lakes. Nest flooding from boat wakes and lake level changes, chick or egg predation, nest abandonment from human disturbance, and boat strikes were all reported to us this year, so while the increase in chicks is a welcomed event, threats remain abundant.
With the 2022 Loon Count came a couple of firsts: the first full count of Sebago Lake, the second largest lake in the state, and the inclusion of chicks hatched from new nesting platforms put out as part of the Loon Restoration Project (a partnership between Maine Audubon, Maine Lakes, Lakes Environmental Association, and the Penobscot Nation). The goal of that project is to enhance nesting success where loons have consistently struggled in the past and decrease loon mortality caused by boat strikes, lead poisoning, and human disturbance. More than 100 volunteers helped us assess loons and lakes for new rafts, resulting in 27 rafts being placed on 24 lakes and producing 11 chicks since the project began in 2021. Additionally, 62 volunteers have helped to protect nesting loons and families as part of this project through lake user outreach, loon ranger activities, and efforts to get the lead out of Maine lakes and ponds.
Both of these “firsts” were made possible by the participation of dedicated volunteers. Brad McCurtain, who stepped up to coordinate the count on Sebago Lake, said, “Importantly, it’s the start of what hopefully will become a library of years of full lake data. And a good chunk of 2022’s count team is lined up and ready to go for 2023.”
In 2023, Maine Audubon will celebrate the 40th year of the Annual Loon Count and the incredible amount of time and effort put forth by thousands of volunteers each year. We have plans in the works and look forward to recognizing all of the people who make the count possible. Loon Count coordinator Hannah Young said, “The commitment from this group of volunteers shows that conservation is a high priority for Mainers and their communities. I’ve loved seeing the passion, knowledge, and dedication the counters possess. Maine Audubon, and the loons, are lucky to have such support.”
For more information about loon ecology, breeding habits, and migration patterns, Young points people to a new Your Loon Questions Answered document, compiled by Maine Audubon biologist Tracy Hart. If you are interested in joining the 40th annual count next year, or helping with the Loon Restoration Project, contact firstname.lastname@example.org to join the fun in 2023!