Watching Michigan loons in the face of disease
Peggy Millard of Petoskey snapped this photo of loons on Round Lake near Petoskey. She has kept tabs on loons in the lake for a decade. (Courtesy photo/Peggy Millard / May 6, 2013)
"They were charging at it and being aggressive toward it," said Peggy, who lives on the Petoskey-area lake.
Peggy said loons will surface next to their kayaks and as soon as they realize they're next to a pair of humans, they dive again.
"They're very wary," Peggy said.
Peggy and Phil often have their eyes turned toward Round Lake watching for loons. They are "loon rangers," Peggy said with a little bit of a smile.
They note the first day loons appear at the lake, when the birds start nesting, when their chicks hatch and what areas loons tend to stay in on the lake.
They've done this for about a decade.
The Millards are part of a program called the Michigan LoonWatch, formed in 1986 by The Nature Conservancy and the Department of Natural Resources' Nongame Wildlife Fund.
The Millards submit their annual reports to Jeff Lange, the area coordinator for LoonWatch, who has been in on the program since its inception.
Twenty-seven years later, Lange — who now lives in Petoskey — oversees Emmet, Cheboygan, Presque Isle, Montmorency, Alpena and Charlevoix counties.
LoonWatch makes a list of every lake in the state that has a nesting loon pair, then enlists a loon monitor there. If a monitor reports a problem with a loon, LoonWatch tries to work with the monitors to find a solution.
Sometimes those problems are natural. The resurgence of bald eagles, for example, has led to more predation on loon chicks.
But human development and avian botulism are bigger dangers to loon populations.
Loons only have one or two chicks a year and only raise one brood. Though Lange said loon parents are good at taking care of their babies, their nesting habitat can be easily disturbed.
"Loons are always losing habitat to people on lakes," Lange said. "That will never change."
Invasive species and illness
People are affecting loon populations in a less direct but potentially more serious way in the form of inviting invasive species into the Great Lakes.
Avian botulism comes courtesy of invasive species. A warm lake and the invasive zebra and quagga mussels can exacerbate botulism, and the summer and fall of 2012 was the worst season since 2006, said Damon McCormick, wildlife biologist and co-director of Common Coast Research & Conservation, based in the Upper Peninsula's Hancock.
Both mussels filter and clarify lake water, allowing a type of algae called cladophora to grow over the mussels. The cladophora dies, detaches from its bed of mussels, accumulates, rots and produces the botulism toxin.