PORTLAND, Maine — Maine’s loon tally could go down this year following last year’s record numbers because of the wet spring.
Up to 1,000 volunteers across the southern half of the state aim to find out Saturday as they scout out lakes and ponds in Maine Audubon’s 28th annual loon count. Loon surveys are being held the same day in New Hampshire and Vermont.
Southern Maine’s adult loon population has grown steadily in the past 25 years, with last year’s count of 3,220 about double the number in the mid-1980s, said Susan Gallo, Audubon’s staff wildlife biologist.
While the state’s adult loon population has been growing, the number of loon chicks has been holding flat, yo-yoing between 150 and 400 over the years. There could be any number of reasons why the adult population has been going up while the chick numbers have not, Gallo said.
“It’s a mystery,” she said.
The loon and its loud wailing cry are often associated with the wilds of Maine. The iconic bird is on the state’s conservation license plate.
Maine has more loons than any other state in the Northeast, with estimates putting the total at more than 5,000 statewide. New Hampshire has about 650 of the birds and Vermont has about 210, according to last year’s surveys in those states.
The Loon Preservation Committee is organizing Saturday’s loon count in New Hampshire. The Vermont Center for Ecostudies is organizing the one in Vermont.
The surveys create a snapshot of the size and health of each state’s loon population while giving biologists more information about the birds.
Maine Audubon also has a separate loon productivity study, for which volunteers provide a detailed, summer-long analysis on designated lakes of how many loons breed, where they nest and how many chicks survive to the end of the summer. The study, which is seeking more volunteers, is in its second year.
In Maine, volunteers count loons on more than 300 lakes and ponds in the southern half of the state. Loons in northern Maine aren’t counted because there aren’t enough people in the sparsely population region to survey the vast expanse of remote lakes, but Gallo said there are at least a couple thousand loons in the northern half of the state.
Gallo wouldn’t venture a guess on how many adult loons might be spotted this year, but indicators suggest the count of loon chicks might go down from last year’s tally of 280 because of the wet spring.
Loons typically lay their eggs from mid-May to mid-June in nests on the shoreline of lakes and ponds. With high water, many early loon nests are flooded away.
“I was on a lot of lakes Down East the last couple of weeks and I saw a lot of loons but not many nests,” Gallo said. “Traditional nesting sites were underwater, so I’m expecting fewer chicks, but they may come later in the year.”
Elwood Beach has been counting loons on Raymond Pond in Raymond, where he and his wife have a seasonal cabin, since 1995. He also organizes other volunteers on other ponds and lakes in the area.
Beach, 82, usually sees four loons on his lake, but expects to spot five this year. He thinks the numbers are going up because of laws that protect the birds. For instance, Maine prohibits the sale of lead fishing sinkers, which can kill the birds, and has 200-foot no-wake zones along shorelines to protect nests.
Beach thinks public awareness goes back to the 1960s, when the dangers of the pesticide DDT became apparent. The U.S. banned DDT in 1972.
“I suspect a lot of the loons’ success has to do with the fact we’re more interested in preventing pollution,” Beach said.