Over the last seventy years, northern Wisconsin has experienced increasing development. Housing density maps from 1940, 1990, and 2010 clearly show cumulative density throughout the decades, particularly in the lakes regions. What does this mean for loons? Loss of habitat, declining water quality, and increased recreational use of lakes influences loon presence and survival.
Dire though this looks, there are many action steps we can all take to help mitigate these issues such as shoreline restoration, use phosphorus-free products, watch and recreate at least 200 feet away from loons. Read on to learn more about what you can do to protect the symbol of our northern woods and waters.
For so many people who visit or live in the north woods, loons are an integral part of the lake experience. So why do some lakes have loons and not others? Loons need healthy aquatic ecosystems with good water quality, abundant prey, irregular shaped shorelines or islands with native vegetation, and nursery habitat with little to no human disturbance.
Therefore loons are considered to be an indicator species, meaning that the presence of a loon may indicate that a lake they live on or frequently visit is healthy. Here are some things you can do to help protect the habitat and loons on your lake.
Practice Good Loon Etiquette
- Watch loons from at least 200 feet away. Get a powerful lens for your camera, use binoculars or a spotting scope, and never explore a loon nest site. Close encounters can be deadly for swimming and nesting loons.
- Avoid exploring or camping on islands before July 15 of each year. Loons prefer islands for nesting. Disturbance can cause a loon to abandon its nest.
- Dispose of household garbage at a collection site. Garbage draws raccoons, foxes, gulls, and eagles, which prey on loon eggs. Trash can also ensnare wildlife, including loons.
- Be an ethical angler. Never fish or cast near loon nests or swimming loons, properly dispose of extra bait and trash, and pick up monofilament line.
- Keep dogs and cats away from loons and nests. Pets disturb nesting loons and can destroy loon eggs.
- Be a responsible boater. Never chase loons or run motorboats or personal watercraft over areas where loons have been seen. Loons and loon chicks have died from being hit by boats and propellers. Boat wakes and waves may also wash eggs off of nests.
- Practice and teach wildlife stewardship…always!
Protect and Restore Loon Habitat
- Protect native vegetation on all shores. Loons nest on natural shorelines and use natural materials to build their nests. Native vegetation also protects water quality by slowing and absorbing runoff materials from entering the lake.
- Use only phosphorus-free fertilizers on shorelands, and only if needed. Fertilizer that runs off into lakes increases aquatic plant growth, making it difficult for loons to swim and find food.
- Protect loons from your pets. Keep dogs and cats away from loons and nests. Pets disturb nesting loons and can destroy loon eggs. And please clean up your pet’s waste—pet waste can also contribute unwanted nutrients and bacteria to the water.
- Pollutants from fertilizers, pesticides, streets, and rooftops are contaminating your lakes and rivers. If heavy rains collect in pools and puddles in your yard, the easiest way to help water infiltrate into the ground rather than run off into storm sewers is by creating a rain garden and using rain barrels to collect rain water from your roof gutters.
- Loons need good water quality, healthy lake habitats and ecosystems to survive and thrive. Local government agencies do not have the capacity or resources to monitor the water quality on all Wisconsin lakes; therefore, volunteer monitoring is a vital component to determining the water quality of our state’s lakes and rivers. Learn about Wisconsin’s volunteer water quality monitoring.
- Make sure your septic system is functioning properly. When septic systems don’t work properly, they pose serious risks to human, animal, and environmental health by releasing contaminants, including harmful bacteria and chemical pollutants, into the groundwater and into surface water—lakes, rivers, marshes, and streams.
Reduce Your Energy Consumption
- Sources of mercury in the United States include: 40% from mid-western power plants, 40% from New England power plants and incinerators, and 20% from global sources.
- Most, if not all, mercury entering the Earth’s surface waters comes from the atmosphere. Particles generated by power plants are emitted into the atmosphere, and raindrops form around these particles.
- Mercury, like many toxins, bioaccumulates. This means that as mercury moves up the food chain, it becomes more concentrated.
- Loons have no metabolic means for eliminating the toxin so it accumulates in their bodies. Adult loons can pass mercury on to the egg. This can cause lack of motor coordination in chicks and other effects on the nervous system. These chicks will most likely not survive into adulthood.
- The Deepwater Horizon oil spill has had and will continue to have an impact on loons and many other water birds. In three months, it released 4.9 million barrels, about 205 million gallons, of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
- Posing the largest risks to wildlife in the area of the spill are petroleum toxicity, oxygen depletion, and the presence of oil dispersants.
- Loons eat almost exclusively fish, which will hide under oil slicks as they would under floating vegetation or sea foam. The birds will be covered in oil when they surface and will ingest the oil when preening or while eating contaminated fish.
- Internal exposure to oil can lead to ulcers, pneumonia, liver damage, or other life-threatening conditions.
- Oil causes birds’ feathers to mat and separate This causes the bird to lose buoyancy and the ability to regulate body temperature. It will also cause the bird to lose its ability to keep its down, insulating feathers dry, resulting in hypothermia. Contact with oil on the skin or face can cause lesions.
Loon artificial nesting platforms (ANP) have been used to increase loon nesting success in many states. While they have been effective at enhancing loon productivity and are very popular with lakeshore residents, ANPs do not insure nesting success. The need for an ANP implies that humans have manipulated the habitat to a point where natural nesting is not possible. The best way to enhance the long-term health of loons is to protect natural nesting sites.
If you are considering an ANP, there are a number of questions that should be considered. If you can answer yes to any of the first three questions, a platform is probably not the right management tool for your lake.
- Do loons produce chicks on your lake once every three years?
- Do your loons successfully nest on a nearby lake?
- Are there natural nesting locations on your lake that could be enhanced rather than place a platform?
- Do you know the history of loon nesting attempts on your lake?
If you answered yes to the last question your first step should be to document loon use. You need to determine if:
- The loons are territorial (exhibiting defensive postures such as the penguin dance); non-breeding residents; or just occasional visitors.
- If nesting has been attempted, data on nest locations, cause, and number of failures is important.
If you do not have loons nesting, there may be a number of reasons such as poor food base, high levels of human disturbance, or simply that the loons are successfully nesting on a nearby lake.
If territorial loons nest on your lake but have a history of nest failures you should first work to enhance natural nesting sites. This might be through regulations such as a slow-no-wake zone near the nest, contacts with the landowners about naturalizing shorelines, or educational programs for lake residents or users.
If natural nest sites are not available, you may want to consider an ANP. The most appropriate locations for ANP’s are lakes where all natural nesting sites have been developed, water levels fluctuate severely (such as reservoirs), or where loons nest on mainland shores and have lost their eggs to shore predators such as raccoons for at least three consecutive years.
If natural nest sites are not available or are inadequate, you may want to consider a platform. The most appropriate lakes for platforms are those where all natural nest sites have been developed, water levels fluctuate drastically (such as reservoirs), or loons have lost their eggs to terrestrial predators such as raccoons for at least three consecutive years.
If you are considering an ANP for your lake, there are several things to keep in mind:
- Contact LoonWatch or call your local WI Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist for help in selecting an appropriate location.
- In Wisconsin, you must either apply for a permit or notify the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources before you can place a loon nesting platform on your lake.
- On lakes designated as Areas of Special Natural Resources Interest, a General Waterway Permit for Nesting Structures is required for loon nest platforms constructed and launched since Spring 2004. To find out if your lake requires a permit, visit the WDNR website for General Waterway Permits.
- For all other lakes, you must notify the WI Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist for your county about your nest platform plans (note: this is not a permit). Send a letter that includes a description of the site (lake name, county, township, range, section, and quarter section) where the platform will be placed. Also identify the landowner closest to where the platform will be placed and include their name, address and phone number in the letter.
- The platform should be placed in five to six feet of water and far enough away from shore to deter land predators. It is important that the platform not interfere with boating traffic or be located in close proximity to a predator such as a bald eagle nest. We encourage you to monitor platform success and send your data to LoonWatch.
- We encourage you to involve your lake association in your plans.
- Monitor the nesting success of loons using the platform and send LoonWatch your observations as part of the Annual Lake Monitoring Program.
- You should also consider placing Loon Alert signs at public boat launches around your lake to let boaters know that loons are nesting there.
Important: You will be the person responsible for maintaining the ANP for its lifetime. This includes placing it on your lake within a week of ice-out, removing it in late summer, and making necessary repairs at the end of the season. This is an important long-term responsibility. If the ANP is not properly maintained, it may cause the nest to fail.
The need for loon platforms implies that humans have manipulated the habitat to a point where natural nesting is not possible. ANP’s are not always the answer.
- Platforms can be an easy “out” from the true challenge of balancing human lake use and the habitat needs of loons and other species. Protection of nest sites from development, coordination of water level fluctuations to protect nests, and an understanding of the habitat suitability are essential.
- The best way to enhance long-term health of loons is to protect natural nesting sites.
- There is no guarantee that loons will use a platform and, in fact, ANP’s can sometimes create problems for loons. For example, predators such as crows, gulls, or eagles may more easily locate nests on platforms. In addition, curious humans can impact loons by boating too close to a platform and frightening loons from the nest.
- Loon alert signs at boat ramps and lake resident education are ways to encourage sensitive boating behavior.
In the last few years, an increasing number of loons are being found injured, mostly due to fishing tackle and line. Help prevent this. Let fellow lake users know:
- Do not fish near loons.
- NEVER feed loons.
- Use non-lead fishing tackle.
What to do if you find an injured loon.
- Assess the situation:
- Is the loon able to dive and catch prey? Are you sure it’s injured? Watch it for at least an hour. If it was preening or taking a rest, it will likely start to dive and fish within this time.
- If you observe an injury or fishing tackle entanglement, try to get a good photo.
- Describe the injury—where on the body is the loon injured? Is the loon able to swim and dive? Is the loon beached?
- Write down an exact location of the loon on the lake and lake access points. Include driving directions. Continue to monitor the loon’s location so you can give a good description to potential rescuers.
- If you are unsure if the loon is injured, continue to watch.
- Call your local DNR office for assistance. Provide them with the information you collected while assessing the situation.
- If the loon is injured and cannot be immediately released, call a local wildlife rehabilitator to see if they will be able to take the loon.
What to do if you find a dead loon.
- If the loon is “fresh dead”—does not smell bad and is not bloated, call your local DNR office. The DNR performs necropsies to determine cause of death. This is important, because twenty percent of dead loons have succumbed to lead poisoning.
- If the DNR is not immediately available, carefully collect the loon. Wear plastic gloves, and wrap the loon in a plastic bag. Place the loon in a large cooler with lots of ice, and keep the loon cold until it can be collected.
- If the loon smells bad and is bloated, leave it in place. NEVER collect a loon, loon parts, nests, eggs, etc. for yourself or anyone else. Loons are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and collecting any loon items is illegal.
Get the Lead Out! is a campaign in several U.S. states and Canada aimed at educating anglers about the impact of lead fishing tackle on loons and other wildlife. Each year loons and other waterbirds die from lead poisoning due to ingestion of lead fishing tackle especially sinkers and jigs.
Why should lead matter to you?
- Lead is a toxic metal that can poison people and animals such as loons, bald eagles, great blue herons, and snapping turtles.
- Loons and other waterbirds are poisoned by swallowing lead fishing tackle that is lost while fishing.
- Switching to non-lead tackle is an inexpensive and easy way to make a difference.
What else can you use?
- Sinkers and jigs are also made from non-poisonous materials such as: steel, tin, tungsten, bismuth, pewter, ceramic, densified plastic, and glass.
- These alternatives are simple to find and order on the Internet, and can also be found in some bait and tackle shops.
What will it cost you?
- Non-lead tackle is generally only pennies more than lead equivalents.
- Price comparisons show that steel tends to be even cheaper than lead.
What else can you do?
- Dispose of your lead tackle properly—do not throw it in a lake or trash can. Take it to your local household hazardous waste collection site or a scrap metal collector/recycler. In Wisconsin, there is a list of places that accept lead year round maintained on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website.
- Spread the word—tell others about the hazards of lead to wildlife and people. Encourage the switch to non-lead sinkers and jigs.
- Ask your favorite bait and tackle shop to carry lead alternative fishing tackle.
Where can I purchase non-lead fishing tackle?
- LoonWatch maintains a list of non-lead tackle suppliers.
Is there a Get the Lead Out! display available for fishing and lake events?
- LoonWatch loans portable Get the Lead Out! displays to lake associations, organizations, and agencies for meetings, fishing tournaments, family fishing days, nature center programs, and other events. Contact LoonWatch to request a display.
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