Sunday, July 7, 2019

A tour of Little Sebago: Lake association receives grant to study loons

Look closely and you can see baby loons riding on
 their dad's back as mom looks on. Photo by Jim McBride
By Lorraine Glowczak

The Little Sebago Lake Association (LSLA), located in the towns of Windham and Gray, recently received a $7,500 grant from the Cumberland County Fund of Maine of the Maine Community Foundation to develop a Little Sebago Loon Monitoring Program. The purpose of the program is to study and document loon behaviors, engage and encourage citizen science participation, and implement sustainable conservation actions.

To share information with the greater Windham and Raymond communities, Sharon Young, Pam Wilkinson and Jim McBride, all members of LSLA, invited The Windham Eagle for a tour of the lake. It was a perfect sunny morning last Friday, June 28th, to be introduced to the world of loons – their nesting habitat and the importance of a loon’s role to lake health.“Our focus is to measure their reproductive success,” stated Young, who is the LSLA Loon Committee Chair and the author of the grant. “Originally, from 1997 to 2014, Biodiversity Research Institute banded and monitored loons on Little Sebago.  When their program ended, I became entranced with the majestic loon and began recording their nesting activity on my own.”

Why is a loon monitoring program important? Loons are custodians of a lake’s health. They are near    
the top of the food chain, eating fish who eat smaller fish, who eat zooplankton, etc. As a result, their numbers and reproductive successes are indicators of the overall health of the lake. “It’s our measuring stick,” Young said in a recent press release.

In that same press release, it was stated that because the loon population on Little Sebago is vulnerable to stressors, coupled with the potential impacts of climate change, more information is needed on the individual performances (i.e., reproductive health), as well as specific movements of individuals to ensure long term sustainability. Other nearby states have seen sudden, unexplained declines of territorial loons on their lakes, and it is for this reason that a monitoring program is so important.

The grant will allow lake members to collaborate with Wildlife Research Biologist, Lee Attix of Loon Conservation Associates, in a two-year program of volunteer “Loon Ranger” and “data gathering” training, culminating in a locally run effort of ongoing conservation practices to benefit loons and to promote citizen science. The training will provide instruction to sustain the program long term, keeping the costs at a minimum with maximum lake health benefits.

Nest rafting (seen above) helps protect a loon's nest.
While on the tour of the lake last Friday, we learned that it takes approximately 28 days for loon eggs to hatch, and that both male and females will take turns sitting on the nest, while the other feeds and rest. “Sometimes a loon will leave their nest for an hour but will stay close by to protect them from predators,” Young explained. “Also, they must turn their eggs frequently to allow gasses to escape.”

Their nests are located on land, and in the case of Little Sebago Lake, many of those nests are hidden behind bushes or trees along the shorelines of the islands that sit throughout the lake. It is quite a feat for a loon to walk on land because their legs are located far to the rear of their bodies, so they must walk in a “rolling” fashion. But on land, hidden in the trees and bushes, is where the nest is most protected., not all nests survive due to predators such as eagles, rodents and reptiles. However, human interaction also contributes to the failure. “At the beginning of the summer, we saw a loon nest failure on Spider Island due to the boat wakes,” stated Wilkinson. “The waves washed up on land, making the soil below the nest mucky, causing the eggs to be sucked into the mud where the loon can no longer turn it.”

To help prevent nest failure, members of the monitor program have strategically placed signs near nesting sites to not only prevent wake damage but to keep people away to avoid chasing the loons off the nest. “When people kayak too close to the nest, it scares the loons away,” Young stated.

If the loon monitors notice there has been a nest failure in the same spot for a couple of years, they will create a “nest raft” to help protect from water damage and/or predators.

Presently, there are twelve Loon Rangers, two who have been volunteering for the Audubon Society’s loon counting program for many years. There is also vet tech and one who is trained in animal husbandry, to name just a few individuals who have already signed up to be Loon Rangers. There is
now a waiting list to volunteer.

Banding the loon and registering it in a shared data bank is part of the activities of the Loon Ranger. This method not only keeps track of reproductive successes but can determine the age of the loon. “The oldest loon on Little Sebago is at least 28 years old, making her the second oldest loon known to us,” Young explained. “The oldest known loon is 30 years old and is on a lake in New Hampshire.”
The Loon Rangers on Little Sebago have given a name to this old loon – The Grand Dame of Little Sebago Lake. addition to keeping track of loon health, the program envisions developing a “Loons in the Classroom” curriculum where elementary students learn about the chain of life surrounding Loons.  “Creating interest and impacting knowledge at an early age will further ensure the ongoing success of
the Loon Monitoring Program,” stated Young.

Young recently spoke about loons, using Maine Audubon’s Loon Kit, to a first-grade class in Windham and in a third-grade class in Raymond at their Grandparents Day event. “Many students had encountered loons on Little Sebago or elsewhere and were thrilled to learn more about them and about how to keep them safe,” Young said.

Little Sebago Lake Association’s mission is to protect, restore, and improve our lake’s water quality and fragile ecosystem.  LSLA works to create and nurture a community of lake stewards, educate users on lake safety, always mindful that human needs must be balanced with the needs of the natural environment.

Be sure to catch follow up articles coming soon on boating safety and the milfoil work being completed on Little Sebago Lake.

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