With their brilliant black heads, speckled bodies and melancholy cries, loons have long captivated the attention of Mainers. Among them is Gray resident Sharon Young, who lives on Little Sebago Lake.

“It’s such an impressive creature,” she said while scouring the lake for loons on July 16. “I couldn’t help but fall in love with them.”

Young and two of her granddaughters, Mackenzie Gervais, 10, and Kylie Gervais, 6, were among 900 volunteers who participated in the Maine Audubon’s Annual Loon Count. For more than three decades, Mainers have counted loons on their lakes and ponds on one Saturday in July.

The data collected from a portion of Maine’s lakes are used by Maine Audubon to estimate the total population of loons in the region. The census is part of an effort to track the state’s loon population and raise awareness about this vulnerable aquatic bird.

Young’s fascination with researching and observing the loons on Little Sebago has only grown since she moved to Gray’s shore in 1997. In the past two years, she has kept logs and records of the loon patterns, which she shares on the website for the Little Sebago Lake Association. Before she even ventures onto Little Sebago for the count, she can predict how many loons she will see and where she’ll find them.

Interest in studying and protecting loons is not new. In the late-1970s, Mainers started to report, from casual observation, seeing fewer loons, according to wildlife biologist Susan Gallo.

After several years, the idea of taking a loon census was developed. In 1984, the first year of the count, the loon population was 1,500. Since then the population has nearly doubled: in 2015 there were roughly 2,800 adults and 200 chicks. The results of this year’s count are not available yet.

It’s difficult to trace exactly what’s lead to the increase, Gallo said. In part, their success can be attributed to greater awareness of human action that can help (or hurt) loons. Loons are put at-risk by speed boats that cause a wake on the shore, washing away their eggs, and lead tackle that poisons them.

The annual loon census plays a big role in raising this awareness and interest in loons, she said.

Young and her two granddaughters were one of four boats of volunteers on Little Sebago Lake last Saturday morning. As with lakes across the state, each volunteer is assigned to monitor one section of the lake body.

Gallo noted on a map where she and her crew spotted a loon and whether the loon was an adult or a chick. Volunteers also are asked to describe whether the loon was  alone, with a mate, or in a group.

This is part of an effort to get a better idea of how many loons are “breeders,” and may contribute to the population’s continued growth. Loons that are spotted alone or with a mate may copulate. Those in a group do not. Knowing the number of birds capable of breeding can give scientists a better sense of how the population will fare.

While Gallo said she feels positive about the strides Maine’s loon population has taken, she also feels cautious about their future.

“There are reasons to keep alert,” she said, because the population is still unstable.

Loons still face threats from lead sinkers and avian malaria. As well, climate change may contribute to “a whole slew of things coming for loons in Maine,” she said, including extreme flooding and a decrease in water quality caused by large spring storms.

At the end of the count, Young recorded eight loons: three pairs, one chick and one loner. After the allotted half-hour for loon-searching was up, Young and her granddaughters took a detour to another part of the lake in search of a loon pair and their baby chick.

Mackenzie Gervais spotted a loon ahead and Young cut the engine. The loon cried out for its mate – the bird’s singular call starts on a low note and moves to a second, higher tone.

The call is echoed by a second loon, who is feeding their chick. Gervais, peering through binoculars, said she likes this part best, watching the adult loons dive for fish.

For Young, it’s satisfying to share with her granddaughters her love of loons, and to see their interest in the bird develop. Their interest is important in ensuring the volunteer-based loon monitoring continues.

A closer look

According to the Maine Audubon, here are six steps lakers can take to protect loons:

  • Obey no-wake law within 200 feet of shore.
  • Use lead-free tackle. Good alternatives are made of steel, tin and bismuth.
  • Dispose of fishing line so it does not get tangled up in a loon’s feet or bill.
  • If you live on a lake, use phosphorus-free fertilizer and plant shrubs as a buffer along the shoreline to reduce run-off.
  • If you see a loon on a nest, keep your distance and watch with binoculars.
  • Keep garbage out of reach of loon egg predators like skunks and raccoons.

For more information on loons in Maine, visit www.maineaudubon.org