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.
“We try to keep people informed and let them know that if they get too close to the nest, she will leave. A lot of people don’t know what a loon is.
They think it’s a duck. … It’s not a duck.”
— Dale Doepker
“Many of the rangers live on the lakes and see the loons every day,” Williams said. “The plan is to protect them and keep them from going extinct. We don’t want them to diminish any further than they have.” Williams compiles the numbers. She gets reports from the loon rangers each year. That data is sent to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, a database and program of MSU Extension that informs natural resource managers about population trends of different species.
“The most successful lakes are in the Upper Peninsula where there are fewer humans and less human disturbance,” MLPA President Arlene Westhoven said. “We are looking (to sign up) more loon rangers. If you work in this program, you know it works. We’ve had people target loons and run them over (with a boat.) I hear stories of people chasing loons and photographers who get too close.”
At Canadian Lakes where Doepker lives with his wife, there are 2,200 to 2,300 residential lots on a series of manmade lakes, 5,000 lots in total encompassing 7 square miles — a lot of potential for loon disturbance. But Doepker, who supervises 20 loon rangers across the county, said there are now 17 pairs nesting in the county. Twenty-eight lakes have one or more and 17 chicks were born last year, 13 of which survived.
He and other loon rangers keep close track of the loons. They place warning signs by nest sites and public launches during the nesting season, advising boaters to keep their distance. They build and locate artificial nesting islands where nesting habitat is limited. They go into their communities and give public talks about the loons, and occasionally have a talk with a troublesome boater.
“If we didn’t do this, (loons) would be more at risk from people not knowing about them,” Doepker said. “We try to keep people informed and let them know that if they get too close to the nest, she will leave. A lot of people don’t know what a loon is. They think it’s a duck. … It’s not a duck.”
Howard Meyerson is managing editor for Michigan BLUE Magazine. He loves watching loons and listening to them when he is paddling on or visiting northern Michigan waters.