By Carlye Malchuk-Dash
As the sun sets on a lazy summer’s day, calm waters lap at the shoreline and the air begins to cool. As evening turns to night a familiar noise – both calming and haunting – takes over the bay.
It is the cry of the loon, one of the most easily recognized birds in our region, not only by sight but also by sound.
“When the loons start up it’s like magic,” says Robin Tapley, a local naturalist and expedition leader with a home on Lake of Bays. “It’s peaceful, it’s serene, it’s Muskoka, it’s wild . . . It’s like going to a concert when the final band comes out.”
Loons are found throughout many parts of North America, but here they’ve become a symbol of the northern experience – a quick search on the internet brings up a plethora of sites advertising a getaway to the region where visitors can experience the distant call of the loon for themselves.
Loons are ever present in our society and local cultures. They have been put in paintings, on sweaters, on coins and in stories.
“If you follow it back through First Nations history there has been a tremendous amount of focus on loons,” says Tapley. “It’s the call at night, the long, wailing call. It’s the symbol for the north.”
Of the four species of loons that breed in Canada, the common loon is the best known and most easily recognized. According to the Birds Studies Canada website, loons are also among the oldest species of bird in existence, with a history that some believe spans 50 million years.
Loons are built for swimming and diving with solid bones, webbed feet and legs that are situated far back on their body. According to the Hinterland Who’s Who website, they can stay under water for almost a minute and dive as deep as 80 metres.
A chick is able to swim immediately, but will often catch a ride on a parent’s back to conserve heat and avoid predators.
Although slow to take off, once in flight a loon can travel average speeds of 120-km per hour during migration.
Loons are extremely territorial birds so on small lakes it’s possible that only one pair would reside.
“A couple acres per pair (can be needed),” says Kathy Jones, volunteer co-ordinator for the Canadian Lakes Loon Survey. “It’s kind of a line-of-sight thing. . . . (You will see) more loon pairs with a convoluted shoreline than a simple shoreline.”
Run by Birds Studies Canada, the loon survey began in 1981 initially out of concern that acid rain and other human disturbances were affecting the bird’s survival.
“We are looking specifically at the reproductive success – if parents hatch and rear young, if they’re old enough to survive and migrate,” she says. “At the same time we try to gain other information (and) through the years it has changed as the program has evolved.”
The survey is based on information sent in by volunteers across the country that watch and record loon activity on their lakes.
“Most Canadians can recognize a loon and . . . people are out there anyway counting the loons and seeing what’s on the lake so we might as well take advantage of that and learn from it,” says Jones. “One thing we did learn is that it’s not a study that should be analysed annually. As with all species there is a good amount of fluctuation in the survivorship.”
The last analysis of the data was conducted at the 20-year mark, which showed that chicks in Western Canada had better survivorship than those in Eastern Canada, including Ontario.
“(Loons) need more space (on a lake) per pair in Eastern Canada than in Western Canada, which may relate to productivity levels,” says Jones.
The loon survey has also shown a direct correlation between the survival of the chicks and acid rain, as chicks would often starve due to lack of food around six weeks old on an acid-sensitive lake.
“It is a very good species to see about the health of a lake because the chicks only feed on the one lake so their health is directly representative of the lake,” says Jones.
The study has shown that reproduction rates across the country are generally high enough to sustain the population, although Jones noted that a different study – the Breeding Bird Survey – has recently been showing a decline in loon populations.
At the time of the last analysis of the loon survey, the population was generally good in Muskoka and had improved since the beginning of the survey in the early ‘80s, says Jones.
One thing that can affect loon survival in the region is the continued development and activity on the lakes, says Tapley.
The location of the legs on their bodies makes it difficult for them to walk on land so nests are created close to the water’s edge.
“(Loons will nest in) little back bays, areas where there’s sufficient cover with cattails or any little coastal wetland,” he says. “It’s very important as cottagers and people who enjoy a variety of experiences that they give some leeway to these spots . . . (as) unnatural wave action can wash the eggs right out of the nest.”
Sudden water level fluctuations during the months of May and June caused by dams being released or natural storm events can also have a negative impact on loon nests, says Jones.
One event that may affect the number of loons we see next year is the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“There will be an effect on birds that are aquatic and spend the summers here and fly down south,” says Tapley. “We may see a lot of decline in the species because . . . where they go is right where the oil has spilled … it’s created huge havoc right down there.”
About half of Ontario’s loons go to the Gulf of Mexico and half go to other parts of the Atlantic Ocean, says Jones. And while the true outcome of the spill is not yet known, loons and other migratory birds may have missed the worst.
“If they manage to have a solid clean up we may have been very lucky and the migrating fall loons will be fine, but there’s a lot of ‘if,’” she says.
In addition to the migrating loons that could end up at the oil spill site, the common loon is one of two Canadian species that live year-round at their salt water home prior to becoming mature adults and returning to the inland lakes to mate and rear young.
“We have little mechanism to figure out what happened to these loons. It looks like we’ve been lucky but the information is limited that we can pull together,” says Jones.
According to the Bird Studies Canada website there are at least 100 species of birds that could be affected by the spill during the upcoming migration season.
The website states that due to a number of circumstances, including timing and cleanup efforts, most Canadian species have avoided direct oiling.
However it is unknown what potential short-term and long-term impacts the spill will have on the birds and the ecosystem they depend on in the Gulf.
While there’s not much to be done by a Muskokan 2,000-km away from the oil spill, protecting the loon populations in our own lakes can be as easy as a couple of common sense steps.
Ways to keep your lake loon-friendly include keeping wake low in shallow areas, keeping a safe distance from loons and any known nesting sites and avoiding lead sinkers when fishing, says Tapley.
“(Loons are) very protective of their . . . young. They can be very aggressive toward other birds in their habitat as well as people,” he says. “Be aware, give them their space and enjoy them.”
In July and August, loons may be travelling with chicks on their backs, and so are unable to react as quickly to oncoming water traffic.
“If you see a bird don’t assume it can get out of your way,” says Jones.
Keep shorelines as natural as possible, ensure no refuse like plastic bottles, fishing line or tackle gets left behind and avoid feeding loon nest predators, such as raccoons and gulls, she adds.
Loon nesting platforms can also be constructed to provide an artificial place for the loons to nest that will protect the nest from changing water levels and wake. Instructions on how to build one can be found at the Canadian Lakes Loon Survey website, however the website cautions that a platform may only help if used on a lake where loons are not already breeding successfully.
You can also help track loon populations in your area by becoming a part of the Canadian Lakes Loon Survey, which is looking for more volunteers. To find out more about the Canadian Lakes Loon Survey, or to sign up as a volunteer to track loon populations in your area, log onto their website at www.bsc-eoc.org/cllsmain.html.