Biologists Complete Conservation Plan Draft on Loons

By Beacon Staff

The common loon is an uncommon bird. It flies faster than 100 miles per hour, out-swims fish and occasionally kills unsuspecting geese and ducks by spearing them with its beak from underneath. And now, after six years of research, biologists with the Loon Ecology Project are chronicling plenty of other quirks about the bird, as well as important habitat considerations. The first draft of a conservation plan is complete.

Gael Bissell, a wildlife biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said earlier this summer researchers wrapped up the bulk of field work for studying loons in the lake-rich area of Northwest Montana up through Glacier National Park. As a state, Montana boasts the largest population of breeding loons in the western United States “by a long shot,” Bissell said.

Among the most important findings are the effects that human-caused disturbances have on loons’ nesting areas and the degree to which loons’ territorial tendencies affect their habits. The birds are extremely territorial, if not belligerent at times, which means they are self-limiting by nature in where they choose to nest. Without proper monitoring, public education and management, researchers believe human disturbance will disrupt the already limited nesting areas in Northwest Montana.

“You just can’t tell them to go to another lake to nest,” Bissell said.

Loons choose to place themselves in positions of confrontation by selecting nesting areas where other loons live. They would rather kick their neighbors out of a desired breeding area rather than find a new one. They’ve been known to kill each other’s young.

“Once they find a spot, they don’t want to go anywhere,” said Chris Hammond, a researcher with FWP. “They’ll fight to the death.”

This territoriality, along with the fact loons live to be 25-30 years old and don’t begin reproducing until they are at least 6 years old, has led researchers to compare the bird to the grizzly bear, giving some credence to the title: “Grizzly bear of the bird world.”

A draft management plan for loons was crafted in the 1980s and by the late 1990s a multi-agency coalition had formed to promote research. Then, with the emergence of the Loon Ecology Project in 2003, research efforts expanded considerably in this part of the state.

Only the common loon is found in Northwest Montana, though its yellow-billed cousin has been spotted passing through on migration. The common loon is built for water – not the air and certainly not the shore. They are clunky and awkward on land.

Loons are as heavy as geese but with wings half as large. They aren’t graceful taking off in flight, but once they get going they cruise at speeds of 75 miles per hour and can surpass the 100-mile-per-hour threshold. When they land, they come to a skidding splash on the water’s surface.

But with their large feet and other features, loons are at home in the water. They float on the water surface, peering down below in search of fish, before suddenly diving down in darting pursuit of prey. Loons capture fish in their mouth, using barbed tongues that function like fishing hooks to secure their prey.

The loon population in Northwest Montana has remained stable for the last two decades, which conservationists view as a success. The number hovers between 60 and 80 breeding pairs and about 220 total loons. Because the birds don’t like to branch out to new lakes and territories, that number isn’t expected to grow much. Population stability, rather than growth, is the goal for conservationists, Bissell said.

Though researchers began placing identification bands on loons as early as the mid 1990s, it wasn’t until 2003 that efforts ramped up. Over the past two years, some of the banded chicks from 2003 have been returning from the Pacific Coast, where they migrate to and grow into adulthood if they make it that far. Scientists have noted only about a 15 to 25 percent survival rate. When they reach adulthood – 6 years or so – loons return to the places they were born in Montana.

“They have an affinity for their natal area,” Bissell said.

After closely studying loons’ nesting habits in May and June over the past six years, FWP biologists have identified areas to place signs – either floating buoys or on shore – to warn boaters and anglers of nesting areas. These signs are part of a public education effort that Bissell and Hammond believe will be key to ensure the continued success of loon conservation.

An example of this education is letting boaters and anglers know that when a loon puffs up its chest or makes a tremolo noise, it’s warning that its nest is nearby, not just putting on a show. Along with the education efforts, Bissell said FWP will continue to monitor mortality rates and track banded birds, as well as other research efforts. The conservation plan draft is currently being reviewed by specialists, with the goal of creating a final plan by next year.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.