Volunteer counts loons for annual census
LAKE PLACID — As her one-hour shift began on the shore of Mirror Lake for the New York Annual Loon Census Saturday morning, July 15, Carol Pinney took out her clipboard and wrote down “Sunny, Calm” in the weather portion of her report.
Soon after — while blue jays and song sparrows were making noise and American crows were talking to each other between the St. Eustace Episcopal Church steeple and a nearby white pine tree — there was a big splash in the water directly in front of Pinney at Mid’s Park. Then an osprey that splashed down flew off with a good-sized trout across the lake to the right.
Pinney — with a pair of binoculars hanging from her neck — made a note on her data sheet for the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation, which coordinates the New York Annual Loon Census.
“8:15ish. Osprey caught large fish just off shore of observation point at Mids Park! Flew off to east.”
At the time the census began at 8 a.m., the lake had already come to life. There were several swimmers — some probably training for the Ironman Lake Placid triathlon on Sunday, July 23 — standup paddleboarders, a guy on a water bike and plenty of people in boats: canoes, rowboats and kayaks.
Common loons are regular visitors to Mirror Lake, even though it’s very busy.
“They seem to be able to manage, at least the ones that visit this lake,” said Pinney, who lives just “over the hill” on Chickadee Lane and has been volunteering for the loon census on Mirror Lake for about 10 years. “Loons are like everybody else; they have personalities. There is a loon on Little Clear (lake) that is exceedingly territorial. That one would not do well here because it would be in a state of agitation the whole time.”
Facing east from Mid’s Park, the sun was in Pinney’s face — and in the dozen or so other faces of people sitting in chairs reading, drinking coffee or eating some take-out breakfast. On her data sheet, Pinney looked at the rough map of Mirror Lake — with a large oval portion to the right (south) and a small loop up to the left (north), as if it were a tail.
“You’ll notice Mirror Lake looks actually like a whale,” she said.
It’s not clear whether common loons nest on Mirror Lake. Pinney doesn’t think so, and Beth Boos, stewardship and outreach director at the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation in Saranac Lake, isn’t sure.
“If you were a loon, would you choose this lake?” Pinney said. “I don’t think there’s enough privacy for a loon. There’s not good cover.”
Instead, Pinney thinks the loons fly to Mirror Lake to fish. Last year during the census, she recalled seeing four loons.
“They were just fishing together, having a fun time,” she said. “My thought was they didn’t have nest success, so here they are hanging out feeding. And hopefully this year they had better luck with their nests, and so they are tending to little ones.”
Pinney is an outdoor enthusiast. She loves walking in the woods, watching birds and educating people about the natural world of the Adirondack Park. She used to volunteer at the Visitor Interpretive Center in Paul Smiths while it was operated by the Adirondack Park Agency. Paul Smith’s College took over the facility in 2011.
“The reason I chose Mirror Lake is I walk here,” Pinney said. “I’m so close that I could just walk over the hill.”
Asked why she decided to volunteer for the loon census, she said, “Why not do it?”
Looking fo loons on Mirror Lake can be tricky. Not only are there swimmers and paddlers, there are also plenty of buoys.
“Those buoys don’t help a bit,” Pinney said. “They make you think, ‘Oh.’ And then you look at them and nothing’s happening for hours. If you were a bird, you wouldn’t be that still for that long.”
The buoys on Mirror Lake Saturday were placed there for the Northwood School rowing team. They were switched out a couple days later, when the buoys for the Ironman race were placed on the lake. Ironman athletes complete a 2.4-mile swim on Mirror Lake (two 1.2-mile loops) before bicycling 112 miles and running 26.2 miles and finishing at the Olympic Speedskating Oval on Main Street.
Pinney spent most of her hour scanning the lake with her binoculars.
“They’re so sneaky,” she said of the loons. “You’ll scan and scan and scan, and there will be nothing. and then all of a sudden, there will be two.”
So that’s what she did … scan and scan and scan.
“And hope,” she said.
After 42 minutes, finally, she saw one common loon — at the base of the whale’s tail to the left, the north end of the lake.
“Are you all by yourself?” she said, asking the loon in a hushed voice as she looked through the binoculars. “And where have you been hiding? How exciting.”
The reason Pinney chose Mid’s Park to watch for loons — instead of Brewster Park to the north, Peacock Park to the south or in a canoe or kayak — was its central location at the belly of the whale. She can see most of the lake from there — all except the tip of the whale’s tail in a bay at the north corner.
“He just surfaced, and then he’s down again,” she said. “You can just see the ripples beyond that swimmer. Well, exciting, exciting.”
Pinney figures the loon may have been in that northern bay before she saw him.
“You know, that’s the corner, if I were a loon, trying to nest, I would use. But I just can’t believe you would feel comfortable raising your chicks on this lake, if you were a loon,” she said. “There’s good fish down in that corner. My brother-in-law always likes fishing down there. There’s lots of rocks.”
At that far distance, Pinney had to look for signs that this wasn’t just another bird — a duck, for instance.
“It’s doing a nice stretch,” she said, “proving it’s a loon. Now, could there be another one here somewhere?”
Nope. Not on her watch.
With five minutes left before the census ended, Pinney reflected on her loon watching at Mid’s Park. Was it successful?
“Always. It’s always good,” she said. “Even better, we had one loon. It’s always good to see a loon.”
On Monday, before the census, board members at the Mirror Lake Watershed Association held their annual meeting and discussed their participation in the Loon Center’s Adirondack Loon-Friendly Lake certification program. They need to check off items on a list — such as installing fishing lines recycling containers, holding lake cleanup events and distributing loon brochures to lake property owners — before getting certified at the end of the summer.
“That would be great,” Pinney said. “There are so many people who use the lake, it would be wonderful to have an interpretive thing here at the park, and there are several parks. There’s three of them. And at the library would be another place.”
Pinney likes the idea of telling residents and visitors about the loons that visit Mirror Lake to fish. And education is key to protecting the birds.
“You can’t protect what you don’t know,” she said.
In all, more than 400 volunteers had signed up to cover about 360 lakes during the New York Annual Loon Census, according to Boos at the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation.
Why 8 to 9 a.m.?
“All of the other states in the Northeast do it at the same time,” Boos said, adding that New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine also take part in the annual common loon census. “Birds will move, so it’s the best way to make sure we’re not having any duplicate observations.”
The Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation has coordinated the loon census in New York since 2001, and it’s been helpful to learn more about how loons are doing in the state.
“It’s really helpful in tracking loon populations, and that includes reproductive success, getting to see the chicks at this point,” Boos said.
The Adirondack North Country Region is on the southern end of the breeding range for common loons, which “are excellent indicators of water quality as they require crystal-clear lakes (which makes it easier for them to see prey underwater) with abundant populations of small fish,” according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Learn more about the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation at www.adkloon.org.