The Wilkinson family looks for loons on Little Sebago during the 2017 Loon Count. The event has been held annually since 1983, and the estimated loon population has doubled since then. Contributed / Maine Audubon

For more than 25 years, Elwood Beach has been waking up early on the third Saturday in July to count loons outside his home on Raymond Pond.

“I’ve always been interested in loons. They are such a unique bird,” the Raymond resident said.

Beach’s effort is part of a larger initiative to document the loon population on Maine’s lakes. Since 1983, Maine Audubon has been bringing citizen scientists together in late July to count the loons they see in a given time period. This year’s Loon Count is set for 7-7:30 a.m. July 17.

For close to 40 years, volunteers have been going out every third Saturday of July to count loons, including these seen in 2018 at Little Sebago Lake. Contributed / Maine Audubon

“It gives us a snapshot at the same time every year as (volunteers) fan out across lakes in Maine,” said Tracy Hart, a wildlife biologist with Maine Audubon. “It gives us a sense of where the loons are in an estimate of the population. Comparing that year to year gives us an idea of what the trends may be.”

Last year’s count included 1,347 volunteers and 48 regional coordinators who reviewed 308 lakes in Maine. This year, loon counters are still needed for a number of lakes, including Long Lake in Naples and for Sebago Lake, where there are not enough volunteers to fully survey the entire body of water.

Beach, who serves as the regional coordinator for 17 lakes around the Raymond area, said his participation is  his way of getting involved locally and “seeing how things are progressing in terms of loon population.”

In Southern Maine, the loon population has nearly doubled since to Loon Count began in 1983, rising from roughly 1,500 that first year to 2,974 adult loons and 414 chicks last year. The 2020 figure for adult loons is down from the 3,128 that were estimated in 2019 and 3,269 estimated in 2018, but a tick above the estimations from 2015 to 2017. Although loons are counted in the northern part of the state, Hart said there are not enough volunteer counters to come up with reliable estimates for that part of Maine.

The count is held the third week in July to coincide when chicks are beginning to hatch. Loons make their return Maine’s lakes in April  and spend the month bonding with their mates. By June, nests are in place and chicks hatch between July and August. The chicks begin to fledge in September and October, and the loons move closer to the coast or head south for the winter.

The common loon, a Maine icon,  has a wingspan of about five feet and bodies up to three feet long when fully grown.

Emilie Swenson looks out from her kayak on Great East Lake in York County during Maine Audubon’s 2018 Loon Count. Contributed / Maine Audubon

The Loon Count, Hart said, does more than just give Maine Audubon an estimate of the number of loons.

“Loons are a really good indicator of water quality,” she said. “If loons are doing well, it indicates lake health is good.”

Deteriorating water quality impacts the loons’ food source, Beach said.

“When water quality deteriorates, the fish numbers deteriorate and the loons find it hard to live there and move on,” he said. “Fortunately our water quality has been nice very since I have been involved.”

The volunteer Loon Count has led to other conservation work throughout the state, Hart said, including Maine’s lead tackle ban and the Fish Lead Free Initiative. Lead is fatal to loons when it is ingested.

Another growing threat to the loon population is boat traffic, she said

“As motorboat operators, kayakers, and other lake users are getting back out on the water this year, please remember that trauma from collisions with boats is a leading cause of loon deaths and the toll is rising,” Hart said. “Boat wakes can also flood nests and disturbance can cause loons to abandon their nests.”

Lake visitors should be mindful near islands and the shore and avoid approaching loon families, she said.

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