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Loon Habitat Quality Assessments 2012-2013

Thank you for your interest in this citizen-science initiative launched by Maine Audubon and sponsored by TogetherGreen, a cooperative endeavor of National Audubon and Toyota to support conservation projects that engage new audiences and create tangible, on-the-ground conservation results.  The goal of this project is to have volunteers across the state of Maine get out on lakes and ponds, looking for loons and documenting features of loon territories and nest sites that will help assess “habitat quality”.

If you are a volunteer looking to participate in this project, please see the “Additional Resources” below to find the instructions and data form, as well as two files you can use to look up data for your lake.   These are also available at other websites, see the instructions for more information.  

What is loon habitat?  All animals live in a habitat, a place where they get what they need to survive: food, water, shelter, and a place to raise their young. The key element of habitat for breeding loons in Maine is their territory, the area they defend from other loons. Territories are typically about 100 acres on a lake or pond.  On larger lakes, loon pairs can have side-by-side territories, often with each territory having some physical boundary like a cove or island helping separate it from neighboring territories. Within each territory, a loon needs:

  • A nest site: Loons build a nest, really just a mound of vegetation and muck, right on the water’s edge. This makes it easy to slip on and off the nest undetected by predators.  Nest sites have to be accessible and free from barriers that would prevent a loon from getting on-shore (like steep banks or large rocks).
  • A nursery area: Loons need quiet areas, free from predators and disturbance, where they can focus on feeding and raising their young.  This can be near the nest site or some distance away.
  • Food:  Loons eat fish as their primary food, which they find by sight and catch using their sharp, heavy beak and long, flexible neck. They can eat up to 2 pounds of fish each day to survive throughout the summer.

What is habitat “quality” and why does it matter? For many species, the better the habitat they are in, the more successful they are surviving, feeding themselves, and raising offspring. For Maine’s loons, a clean, clear lake with abundant fish will probably be a better place to live compared to a lake with cloudy water and fewer fish.  A lake with a quiet cove with fewer interruptions from boaters and kayakers may give a loon more time to focus on feeding its hungry chicks. A concealed nest site might be safer from predators compared to one out in the open.  These elements of habitat “quality” could directly translate into loon productivity, or the number of chicks a loon pair successfully raises each year.  This has long-term implications for how well our loons in Maine will do over the coming decades, especially as they face growing recreational use, more dramatic rain events, and warming water temperatures.

Who can participate?  Although primarily set up for Maine Audubon’s loon count volunteers, anyone who can spend time on a lake or pond in Maine and who can provide most of the information we are asking for can participate in a habitat quality assessment.

How much time will it take?  Depending on how much you already know about the lake and the loons where you are providing the assessment, it could take as little as a few hours or as much as a few days of time to collect the information we are looking for.

What do I need?  Aside from a few hours of time, you’ll need a boat so you can assess the shoreline.  Either motorized or non-motorized boats will work, though depending on the territory size, non-motorized boats might take some time. A digital camera for taking photos of the nest area is helpful, as is a GPS unit or Smart Phone to get coordinates for nest locations. Familiarity with the internet is needed for some of the measures, but it’s not essential for completing the assessment.

If we can identify higher quality habitat, we can work to preserve it.  And if we can identify lower quality habitat, we can work to improve it.  This project takes the first steps to assess lakes and loon territories, with the long-term goal of working to keep Maine’s loon population striving and healthy across the state.  Thank you for your help collecting this important information!

Please see the references below, call or e-mail project director Susan Gallo at 207-781-6180 ext. 216 or [email protected] any time with additional questions.

Links from the datasheet:


This volunteer monitoring project is made possible through a grant from TogetherGreen. National Audubon and Toyota launched the five-year TogetherGreen initiative in the spring of 2008 to fund conservation projects, train environmental leaders, and offer volunteer and individual action opportunities that significantly benefit the environment. The TogetherGreen initiative and grants program are funded by a $20 million gift from Toyota to Audubon, the largest grant in Audubon’s long history.