/ Opinions / If you live loons…

If you live loons…

August 21, 2020 by Ted Rulseh

Few people have studied loons more intensively than Walter Piper, a professor of biology at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. If you love loons, you’ll want to get familiar with his work on The Loon Project.

The website (loonproject.org) is a treasure chest of information, pictures and videos about loons, taken from observations by Piper and colleagues at some 200 lakes right here in Oneida County. This project isn’t about cute and cuddly. It’s rigorous science. 

“On The Loon Project, we reach conclusions scientifically,” Piper observes. “That is, we do not deal in anecdotes and gut feelings, but instead rely upon robust statistical analyses that are peer-reviewed by other scientists and published in scientific journals.”

One observation on the website’s home page is rather disturbing: “In the fall of 2019, we learned through rigorous analysis of our long-term data that our population [in northern Wisconsin] is suffering a long-term decline in breeding success. Specifically, breeding pairs are raising fewer and smaller chicks than they did 25 years ago for reasons that we do not yet understand.”

Piper further notes that the adult loon population in our part of the state “has declined significantly, chiefly because of lower survival during the first five years of life.” He and his team members are searching for the reasons in hopes that such knowledge might illuminate ways to turn back the trend.

Piper’s blog entry from Aug. 14 observes that breeding loons struggled horribly with black flies back in May: “Black flies …were worse in 2020 than any year during the 28-year study, worse even than in 2014 when about 80% of all first nests were wiped out by the relentless blood-suckers …The flies were a painful punch to the gut from which the breeding population never recovered.”

Most loon pairs that had to abandon their first nests of the season did manage to nest again in June, by which time the flies were gone. And therefore many pairs did manage to produce chicks, some on lakes where loons had not bred successfully for many years. Still, the downward trend in reproduction continued; many chicks perished soon after hatching. 

“In short, we can no longer breathe a sigh of relief after chicks hatch, or even after they reach two, three or four weeks. As a matter of fact, I no longer know at what age we should count chicks as having survived. Mortality of chicks of all ages is much higher now than in the 1990s or early 2000s. Statistically, 31% more young loon chicks (less than two weeks) die now than before, and the death rate of old chicks (beyond five weeks) has increased by a staggering 81% in the past 28 years.”

All this is good reason to treasure the loons we have and do what we can to help them nest and help their chicks make it through. Beyond the gloomy trend highlighted here, Piper’s website is filled with fascinating information about loon territorial behavior, reproduction, habitat selection, and population dynamics. It’s brilliantly written and beautifully illustrated — definitely worth getting to know and visiting often.

Ted Rulseh resides on Birch Lake in Harshaw and is an advocate for lake protection and improvement. His Lakeland Times and Northwoods River News columns are the basis for a book, “A Lakeside Companion,” published by The University of Wisconsin Press. Ted may be reached at [email protected]

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