Part of the experience of living on or near Taylor Pond is hearing the loon calls and seeing our resident loons circumnavigate the pond each day. But, according to many longtime residents, it has been more than fifteen years since a loon chick has been spotted on Taylor Pond. This is a concern as we look toward the future. This summer, local residents are working with Maine Audubon to address this issue.
While multiple attempts have been made in the past to provide a stable nesting platform for loon pairs, those efforts have failed. This year, in collaboration with the Maine Loon Restoration Project led by Maine Audubon, we are trying again.
Loon family, feeding the chick.
Maine Audubon started the Maine Loon Restoration Project in 2021 in partnership with Maine Lakes, the Lakes Environmental Association, and the Penobscot Nation. The project is funded by an oil spill settlement, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Trustees, resulting from an oil spill in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts in April 2003. It was estimated that 531 loons died as a result of that accident. Maine Audubon decided to focus a portion of the grant on efforts to increase the hatching success of loon pairs on Maine lakes that haven’t successfully fledged a loon chick in 3 or more years. Taylor Pond clearly qualifies and a floating nesting platform was launched in early May of this year.
According to Tracy Hart, Maine Audubon Wildlife Ecologist and head of the Maine Loon Restoration Project, other parts of the project involve outreach to reduce nesting disturbance and egg washout from boat wakes, as well as loon mortality from threats like boat strikes and lead tackle poisoning.
The project launched 27 loon nesting platforms in Maine in the summer of 2022. Of these, 9 were used for nesting, 8 chicks were hatched and 7 survived, which is an excellent success rate given that it can sometimes take multiple years for loons to start nesting on rafts. When asked how they defined “success”, David Morrill, a Seasonal Wildlife Biologist with Maine Audubon, said it was when a chick fledged. In other words, a chick has to hatch, be cared for by its parents for 12 weeks, learn to feed itself and be strong enough to fly away in the fall in order for that specific platform to be deemed a success. However, the rafts themselves can only help to address certain threats and once a chick hatches, the platforms no longer provide any protection.
For 2023, Maine Audubon Society is launching another 33 platforms, including Taylor Pond’s, for a total of 60. The plan is to relaunch these platforms each year that threats to nesting remain, understanding that it may take time for a breeding pair to become accustomed to the platform.
Hart believes, based on the data collected to date, that loon platforms can increase productivity for breeding pairs that struggle to hatch chicks year after year. But she emphasizes that rafts take maintenance and pose some risks, so should only be used in cases where loons continually fail to hatch chicks due to reasons that the nesting platforms can help address–like nest flooding from water level fluctuations or boat wakes, predation, or loss of nesting habitat. The platforms, made of cedar logs or other materials, are anchored but float so that rising water won’t swamp them. Some have extra protections like avian guards and wake guards. Our platform does have an avian guard.
Some of the greatest dangers to nesting loons are excessive wakes which flood nests, predators, rising and falling water levels, and disturbance by people who get too close to the nest. Lead contamination from lost or discarded fishing tackle remains a leading cause of death for adult loons, but it appears that boat strikes are now killing more loons and their chicks than lead poisoning. In terms of predation, raccoons, mink, skunks, gulls, crows, and even dogs predate loon nests. Eagles are new on the scene as predators and may well be part of the reason why we have seen so few chicks on Taylor Pond.
The nesting platforms, once launched, are essentially floating islands, complete with vegetation. Maine Audubon supplies the raft, flotation, and green avian guards made of lobster trap wire in locations where there is heavy predation from bird predators. Local volunteers working alongside trained Maine Audubon biologists then spread 2’” of topsoil over which they lay large pieces of moss to help hold the soil on the raft. Small native trees and perennials are then planted, in our case a cedar tree, a dogwood whose trunk reached through the avian guard, and a small patch of blue flag iris. The moss is smoothed to create a bowl or hollow in the center of the raft. The avian guard has to be at least 27” high at the apex of the arch over the raft to give the loons room to nest and sometimes, even mate on the raft. Cedar or pine boughs are then woven through the avian guard to provide shade until the planted vegetation is established and leafs out.
Now that the platform has been launched, it will be monitored on a weekly basis by Debbie Hammond, the new Taylor Pond Loon Counter. She will make online reports to Maine Audubon. Debbie is continuing a family tradition by taking over from her father, Peter Durgin, our long time Loon Counter, who died last spring. Maine Audubon will check on the platform several weeks post-launch and provide volunteers with additional information about how to conduct the surveys and observations about loon behaviors. Greg Hammond, Jan Phillips and Joan Macri worked with Maine Audubon’s Toni Rabasco and David Morrill to prepare the platform for launch.
It will be years before we know if the program has been successful. Loons are born and fledge on fresh water lakes. They migrate to the coast and winter on the ocean where they remain for several years. When they are strong enough to defend their territory, they return to their lake of origin to breed the next generation. Hopefully these efforts will ensure that the Taylor Pond community will continue to enjoy its loons for many generations to come.