Success hard to find during MTRI loon nesting project

·4 min read

The birds continue to have the final say in the artificial nesting platform project for loons that began in 2016 with the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute (MTRI).

The project is aimed at monitoring the loons, which have shown high levels of mercury in their systems, as well as helping to protect their nests amid climate change issues.

But the loons aren’t carried away by the possibilities.

“It’s all about location; as much as we would love to see them use these platforms year after year, they would probably rather use a nice looking island where they have been nesting for years. That’s what we are struggling with,” said Colin Gray, a researcher at MTRI.

The project began after concerns were raised by the Canadian Wildlife Services who found that loons in the Kejimkujik area have the highest mercury concentrations of any loon population in North America. These levels have been associated with impaired reproduction and altered breeding behaviour. The lack of successful breeding raised the eyebrows of the scientists.

MTRI began a loon research and monitoring program in 2007, and volunteers have been keeping an eye on loons on about 60 different lakes.

Along with the presence of ethyl mercury in the loons, the program is also gauging the effect of climate change and weather events, particularly increasingly more intense storms, explained Gray.

Loons like to nest on the edge of the land where they have easy access to the water because they are not known for their ability to walk on the land. However, relying on having their nests near the water makes them susceptible to flooding and drought.

The artificial nesting project was funded by the Habitat Conservation Fund, Mountain Equipment Co-op, Canada Summer Jobs and private donors. MTRI staff and volunteers created 10 nesting platforms in 2016 using design specifications from the Michigan Loon Preservation Association. Ten more were set out in 2017. Four others have since been created, sponsored by Nova Scotia Power.

However, although there have been about 24 platforms placed in the Mersey and Medway watersheds, only two have been used by loon pairs with consistency, one in Digby and one in Fancy Lake outside of Bridgewater.

The Fancy Lake platform is monitored by retired school teacher Greg Crouse, and Greg McNally, a doctor at the South Shore Regional Hospital. They had built their own nesting platform seven years ago, which caught the attention of Gray and his team.

Crouse reported that after the first unsuccessful year, there has been a baby loon born each year since.

“Our lake is a shallow lake and the trouble is after a heavy rain the water rises six inches to a foot and each year the loons would get flooded out,” said Crouse. “So we decided to make a platform that would rise and fall with the water.”

He said that their success, above the others, comes from knowing where their loons nested in the lake – a marshy area that is well protected.

CBC’s Land and Sea television program produced a feature on loons and the “two Gregs” in southwest Nova Scotia in 2016 highlighting their work on the platform.

Crouse said the platform consists of PVC pipe, with plastic fencing secured with wooden straps. It is then topped with some mud, branches and pebbles. He said it only took them a couple of hours to make and it’s been well worth it.

“Just to watch them teach their little ones to dive and fish,” said Crouse. “The pleasure we have had with it is priceless. There’s nothing like the call of the loon at night.”

According to Gray, the broader project has been in a holding pattern partly because of COVID-19, but mainly due to a lack of funding.

“The project is all very funding-dependent. At the moment, we don’t have anything other than the power corporation contract to work with the loons,” he said.

“There’s always potential for improvement and I think that will come with a little extra on our part and, again, funding plays a key role in all of that. I think it’s an important project. People love loons. They’re an icon on the landscape of Canada.”

Kevin McBain, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, LighthouseNOW Progress Bulletin

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