ETNA, Maine — Even before Sharon and John Fitzgerald got their canoe in the water Saturday morning, they heard the eerie resonating cry of a pair of loons fishing nearby.
The Orono couple were two of the hundreds of volunteers statewide who spent a half-hour early Saturday morning counting the waterfowl for Maine Audubon’s 26th annual loon count.
“It’s worth it just to hear their call,” Sharon Fitzgerald said Saturday afternoon.
There was a steady light rain as the pair made their way across Etna Pond — which is in parts of Etna, Stetson and Carmel — following the sound of the birds.
“We started paddling over to the northeast end” of the pond, she said of the 7 a.m. jaunt. “They were over there. As quick as we saw them, we began booking it” to the other side of the pond to look for others.
The annual loon count takes place between 7 and 7:30 a.m. to avoid counting the same bird twice, so the work has to be done quickly, she said.
“We’ve always enjoyed paddling and doing things outdoors in the state of Maine,” Fitzgerald said, giving the reason why she and her husband have participated in the count for the last 17 years. “We’re pretty addicted.”
Maine Audubon started the Maine Loon Project in 1983 as a way to estimate annually how many of the distinct fowls populate the state’s lakes and ponds.
“There are two counters for each lake, unless it’s a really big lake,” Sandy Cyrus, coordinator for Region 14, which has 10 bodies of water mostly in southern Penobscot County, said on Friday.
Each set of volunteers is responsible for one body of water, observing either by shore or by boat, and their tallies are sent to one of 45 coordinators from around the state, who send them to Maine Audubon, which compiles a comprehensive tally.
The count’s tallies, which are used by conservation groups such as Maine Audubon to help protect natural habitats, won’t be available for at least a month, Cyrus said.
Last year, more than 1,000 volunteers counted loons, recording 2,083 adult loons and 184 chicks. The number of adults, which declined in 2007 and 2006, increased, but the number of chicks decreased from a nearly record high of 422 in 2007 to just 265 in 2008, the Maine Audubon’s Web site states.
Maine Audubon leaders are worried that this year’s heavy rains may have flooded or washed away some nests, Susan Gallo, a wildlife biologist who serves as loon project director, said recently.
“Loons are always susceptible to changes in water levels on lakes where they are nesting,” she said.
Loons typically nest mid-May to mid-June, with most chicks hatched by this weekend, Gallo said.
This weekend’s count will go far in answering the question of whether Maine’s recent soggy weather has had a detrimental effect on the population, she said.
New this year is a loon photo contest, which is open until Oct. 15 and will be judged in three categories: youth, amateur and professional.
“Remember, please respect loons and do not disturb them either on or off the nest, especially at this critical time of the year,” Maine Audubon’s Web site states. “Use a zoom lens or watch from a blind to minimize your impact.”
There is a limit of five photo entries per person. To find out more about the contest, go to maineaudubon.org.
During Saturday’s count, one loon surfaced close to the Fitzgeralds’ canoe.
“He was close enough to see the red in the eye,” Sharon Fitzgerald said. “They were very, very busy fishing. Doing lots of dives.”
The half-hour count, while wet, was over way too quickly for the working couple, said Fitzgerald. She is a librarian at the University of Maine and her husband is a chemist for Lincoln Paper and Tissue.
“Being out on the water is nice and serene,” she said. “The rain caused a nice mist this morning.”
Susan Cover of the Kennebec Journal contributed to this report.