Saving the Loons
Volunteer loon rangers are the bird’s best friends.
By Howard Meyerson

When winter ice disappears on West Lake in Mecosta County, shoreline resident Dale Doepker begins to look for the loons. He’s watched them come and go for 15 years and has a front row seat at his home. A pair nests annually on the tiny island right in front of his place. He watches them with a spotting scope from the lower level of his walkout.

“The day the ice is gone, they show up. It’s predictable,” said Doepker, a lanky retired GM facilities director who moved from Farmington Hills to Canadian Lakes 17 years ago where he developed an enduring affinity for loons. “The same pair comes back to this lake every year. They had two babies last year. I can look right out on the lake to the island where the nest is located; it’s a beautiful view.”

Common loons are a large diving bird with striking plumage and memorable calls that ring out across waters from the northern U.S. and Canada to parts of Iceland and Greenland. Globally, the species is listed as stable, but in Michigan, it is listed as threatened. Its numbers here have declined substantially since the early 1900s when it was found on waters across the state, only to become nearly absent by 1912 on southern Lower Peninsula waters, according to the Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas II published in 2011.

 

Loons are an old species that appear in prehistoric fossil records, but they are vulnerable to many things: changing water levels from dams, predation by bald eagles that eat their babies, raccoons that eat their eggs and even snapping turtles. Older commercial fishing nets also once took a toll. More significant, though, is residential development on southern Michigan waters, and the harassment they suffered from boaters, anglers and even well-intended nature photographers. Loons prefer to nest on peaceful waters. Today, they are found largely on northern Michigan lakes.

Doepker is a loon ranger, the Loonwatch coordinator for Mecosta County and a volunteer with Michigan Loonwatch, a program of the Michigan Loon Preservation Association (michiganloons.com). The nonprofit group’s members currently monitor loons on 260 lakes around the state. The concept was started in 1986 by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. It was called the Loon Registry back then, created to better understand where and why loon populations declined and what could be done about it. A state loon recovery plan followed, calling for 500 nesting pairs to come off the state threatened species list. Currently, there are 300 known pairs, according to Joanne Williams, state coordinator for the program. — See the current issue for the full story.