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Loon Watch
by Luanne Jaruzel
The common loon is a beautiful black and white bird whose mournful call is considered by most people to be 'the sound of the north country.' They are currently a threatened species in Michigan, numbering less than 300 nesting pair. The loons have survived many problems from humans in the past, from fishing nets and lead sinkers, to loss of nesting habitat due to lakeshore development. Recently, a new threat has become apparent - jet skis. In 1986, one lake reported jet ski use as a problem for the loons. In 1996, jet-ski related incidents had risen to 32. Problems that arise from careless jet-ski operators have the same result - nest failure due to washout or abandonment and /or death of the loon chicks.

Loon Watch is an organization that has been observing Michigan's loons for more than 10 years. The "Loon Rangers" as they are called, record nesting behaviors and successes each year on specific lakes in upper and lower Michigan. These volunteers, part of the Michigan Loon Preservation Association are the front line for keeping track of the loons nesting success and chick survival rates.

Loons are heavy birds with their feet positioned far back on their body. This makes it very difficult for them to move about on land, so they must build nests at the waters' edge. They prefer quiet sheltered areas to protect the nest. Jet-skis are much easier to maneuver than larger boats and are able to get into small bays and coves where loons nest. Sometime it is the noise that will scare the adults off the nest before the chicks hatch, leaving the eggs vulnerable to natural predators like eagles and raccoons. Jet-skis have been seen stirring up enough wave action that the eggs are washed right out of the nest. Since loons only lay one or two eggs a season, losing eggs prevents their being able to maintain the current population of this threatened species.

Even though loons are awkward on land, they are graceful on the water. They are able to dive and swim underwater for long distances. This tempts many people to chase them. In the upper section of lower Michigan, reports frequently note that jet-skis were chasing loons and ducks, sometimes actually chasing them to exhaustion. In 1997, there were 3 confirmed incidents of loons being hit and killed by speeding watercraft. One adult and two chicks died this way. Incidents, like the following example from Otsego County, are tragic and give jet-ski operators a bad name. After 22 years of successful loon nesting, jet skis appeared on the lake. In Jul, two young men literally terrorized the loons right out of existence. Even though the Loon Ranger for that lake talked to them and tried to stop them, they continued to harass the loons and babies, chasing them for several hours. The adults finally left the lake. The recently hatched ckicks sought shelter in the marsh, but were never seen again.

If you observe someone bothering the loons, there are several things you can do to stop or prevent the trouble. They may not realize they are doing anything wrong. If you know the people involved, or if the disturbance is accidental, you could explain why their actions are harmful to the loons. Educate them by explaining why loons need quiet nesting & nursery areas. Lake associations can make rules to limit the number of boats and jet-skis on their lake at a time. They can also designate nesting areas as 'fishing boat only' areas. If the harassment continues or becomes intentional, you may need to contact local police, DNR officer or game warden. Document the date, time location, any witnesses & registration numbers of the jet-ski involved. Photos and videotapes of the incident are also helpful, especially if legal action becomes necessary. People who harass Common Loons are subject to penalties under the law.

Loons and jet-skis can peacefully co-exist on our northern lakes. People operating the jet-skis should think of the consequences that their noise and waves cause the loons. They need to stay out of the smaller coves that loons nest in and raise their young. If these areas are marked with buoys, slow down or avoid the area. Never chase the loons! A little consideration and respect for these beautiful birds for a long way in keeping our loons productive and happy, so they will remain here for all of us to enjoy for years to come.

For more information about Loon Watch or Michigan Loon Preservation Association, contact the Michigan Audubon Society at (517)886-9144, or email jaruzel@mail.tds.net with questions.

Copyright 1998 Manitou Publishing Co. & Luanne Jaruzel • All Rights Reserved.

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