This Saturday, Peg Susbury of Rumford and William Reid of Skowhegan will take part in a beloved annual tradition. They’ll spend the morning counting loons on their local lakes.

Both Susbury and Reid, along with just a handful of other people, have participated in Maine Loon Count for each of its 37 years, and those 37 years have given them some unique insights into Maine’s iconic birds.

Susbury, as always, will cover Howard Pond in Hanover. She and her husband have spent summers there since 1972, and before she retired she’d spend two weeks teaching her first-grade students about the loons on the pond. When she wrote to Maine Audubon in the early ‘80s for loon information to share with her students, she learned about the Loon Count and has been participating ever since.

The Reids live in a camp that was built in the 1920s on Wesserunsett Lake in Madison. A biologist by training who spent 27 years with the Maine Department of Transportation’s Office of Environmental Services, William Reid remains as fascinated by loons today as he was when he started doing the Loon Count in 1983.

Both counters have seen changes during their time on the Loon Count.

“It took about a decade for our loon pair to raise a successful pair of chicks,” Susbury said. “They used to nest in the inlet, on dry land, and we assume that critters got to the eggs.”

Loons nest along the shore of lakes and ponds because they can’t walk far on land. They’re expert swimmers. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Audubon

The loons have been much more successful since locals created a floating platform for the birds to nest on, she said.

The return of bald eagles, which are known to predate loon chicks, has brought new pressure. Several eagles nest nearby on the Androscoggin River, and one bird regularly sits on a large birch tree to scan for baby loons.

“I told Bob that if we just cut that birch down, our eagle problem would be solved,” Susbury said jokingly.

Reid said that Wessernusett’s loons have increased in his time, in part he thinks because certain other birds have left.

“Skowhegan used to have an open landfill,” he said, “and the hundreds of herring and great black-backed gulls that fed at the landfill would roost on the lake at night.”

Gulls are predators of loon eggs and chicks, but the gulls left when the landfill was capped in 1997. Since then, he said, the average number of loon chicks on Wesserunsett has more than doubled.

Boaters, he said, are the new threat. While there is little boat traffic on Susbury’s Howard Pond, traffic is up on Wesserunsett. Especially irksome, Reid said, are the jet skis, which are fast and tend to travel closer to shore—and loon nests—than other types of motor boats.

The two lakes offer very different loon counting experiences. At just 140 acres, Howard Pond has never supported more than a single loon pair, and Susbury has no trouble grabbing a cup of coffee and finding the loons on the Loon Count morning. About 10 times larger, Wesserunsett Lake requires Reid to boat a long circuit for his survey, and he can rattle off all the successful and unsuccessful areas where loons have nested in his nearly 40 years of counting for Maine Audubon.

In all those years of counting loons, a few experiences stand out. Reid’s most memorable count was just last year, when the engine on his boat cut out in the middle of the lake, and he and his six passengers needed to be towed to shore.

Though Susbury’s count days are fairly calm, there has been plenty of loon drama on the lake over the years, especially now that her neighbors know her and her husband as the ones to go to with loon problems. Twice they’ve had to cut loons free from fishing line entanglements, including one time when she had to jump in the water to lift a tangled loon into her boat to be rescued.

Though neither Reid nor Susbury have ever had to count loons in a pandemic, both say that this year’s count will go on as scheduled, with perhaps slight modifications. Reid borrowed a larger boat this year so that four passengers can sit a safe distance apart to count loons. Susbury said that in fact the coronavirus has inspired her to create something new for this 37th Loon Count: loon print masks that she’s giving to all her friends.

About the annual Loon Count

Maine Audubon’s 37th annual Loon Count will take place from 7 to 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, July 18. The information collected by volunteers during that 30-minute window will help both biologists and state officials understand more about the loon population and the health of Maine’s lakes.

Last year, more than 1,400 people fanned out to look for loons on more than 300 lakes across the state. These dedicated volunteers—some of whom have been involved with the count since its inception—serve to coordinate regions and recruit new counters, shepherding in new generations of loon stewards.

This year, counters, who can count loons by boat or from shore, will be able to submit data using an online portal.

Important conservation work has helped Maine’s adult loon population increase by 70 percent since the Loon Count began nearly four decades ago. There are still threats to loons, however, especially during the summer nesting season. Loons’ inability to walk very far means they need to nest close to the shoreline, making their nests susceptible to washout from boat wakes or high water. A no-wake law requiring speeds that don’t generate wakes within 200 feet of shore has helped prevent shoreline erosion and also helped nesting loons.

Nick Lund is the outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon, a statewide organization that works to conserve Maine’s wildlife and wildlife habitat by engaging people of all ages in education, conservation and action.

Correction: Peg Susbury’s name was misspelled in a previous version of this story. It has been corrected.