Final Report of YFBTA Loon Initiatives Committee, Nov. 28, 2014

Submitted by YFBTA member, Doug Welykholowa, chairperson


2014 Madge Lake Loon Count Survey

All photos in this article: Doug Welykholowa
The 2014 Loon Survey was very successful in a number of significant ways.  Despite periods of bad weather in July and August, we were able to gather good data that helped us better understand results from previous years.  It also allowed us to confirm nesting territories on the Lake.  Madge Lake’s loon population appears to be thriving.  Studies by various groups indicate that lakes in Southern Saskatchewan and the rest of Canada reveal a significant decline.
These studies suggest that climate change, pollutants (of special concern is an accumulation of methyl-mercury in the food chain in many regions) and loss of habitat are likely to blame.  Loons appear to be abandoning the southern lakes in Saskatchewan and are generally moving northward.

Madge, on the other hand, due to its altitude, is not affected by agricultural runoff, and remains part of the boreal forest with respect to its microclimate and ecology.

One worrying factor is pollution from motorboats as more of these appear on the lake. Questions pertaining to current concentration of methyl-mercury and whether that concentration is stable or increasing in food chains of Madge Lake have not been investigated and therefore remain unanswered.   The adult population appears to be very stable from year to year.  Numbers of eggs laid and newborn chicks successfully hatched will always be dependent on weather, snow pack and rainfall, as well as predators and boaters.
The critical period for these events is from early June to Mid-July, while the adults are nesting, and for the first 3 weeks of the chicks’ lives.   In the last two seasons, numbers of chicks produced varied significantly for reasons I will discuss below, however, any losses sustained fell within the June to Mid-July period both this year and last.
All our counts, supplemented by occasional sightings, reported by other persons, were carried out using a pontoon boat.  It provides an excellent, stable platform that allows us to get into very shallow areas of the lake, and allows us to get closer to the birds without upsetting them.  I also purchased an excellent tel-extender for my camera, which magnifies my telephoto shots by an additional 1.4 X enabling me to get better pictures while staying out of the birds’ comfort zones.

This year, for the first time, the Duck Mt Provincial Park interpreters were included in the initial survey in June.  The park was very interested in getting them directly involved so that the interpreters could include the loons in their teaching sessions with interested youngsters and adults in the park.  I was also able to obtain new loon signs for the park from the Canadian Loon Lakes Survey (CLLS) office. The park promptly installed one at each boat launch site.  These draw the attention of boaters.  We continue to educate (boaters) about avoiding nesting areas and adults with chicks.  We also encourage them to keep wake boats away from shorelines that have established loon nesting territories, so that their wakes don’t wash away any eggs during the critical period. 

Boats create other hazards for loons.  Speeding boats can strike loons, especially newly hatched chicks which may not yet have learned to dive.  Fishers returning at night at high speed are threats to which loons resting on the water may not react.  These points illustrate the importance of the goals of the Loon Initiative Committee, one of which is to develop awareness of nesting loons among park visitors.  The overall goal is to make, and maintain, Madge Lake as a “loon-friendly” lake.

Loons first appeared in Late May this year, just as the ice was melting around the edges of the shoreline.  This allowed them to establish nesting sites a couple of weeks earlier than last year.  A total of 80 Adults were spotted in June and July (Fig. 1a). This included 26 pairs that established territories, and 28 adults that formed a large group. This large group likely consisted of a mixture of young unpaired adults as well as older adults that attempted to nest, but were unsuccessful.  Most of these adults stayed throughout July and August.  They would break up into smaller groups during the day, reassembling into a large gaggle in the evening (frequently off the shore of Jubilee Subdivision.  This highlights the importance of educating those park visitors who are travelling about in boats).


The behaviour of the nesting adults was noticeably different from the other adults.  The nesting adults would appear nervous and start yodeling if approached to within 150 M, while the other adults would permit a close approach, or would swim towards the boat.  They never showed signs of concern.


By correlating data from 2013 and this year, combined with observed behavioural patterns of the pairs, we were able to confirm 26 distinct territories on the lake (Fig. 2).  These territories were, on average, 900 M in diameter.  23 of the territories matched those observed last year, while three new ones were observed.  It appears that one territory at Togo Beach was abandoned. 


Of the 26 pairs observed in June and early July, 16 pairs appeared to be nesting, based on their behaviour.  Only one nest was actually spotted (Fig. 4).  In 5 years of observing, this was our first sighting of a nest, as they are notoriously hard to spot.


During the above period, wherever we believed the birds were nesting, we usually spotted only one of the parent birds.  These adults would always act nervously: sinking in the water, raising the feathers on their foreheads, calling and/or yodeling.  Frequently the observed bird would try to lead us away from a nest site.  The remaining 10 pairs would usually be spotted together, acting much less nervously.


As the summer progressed, a few birds abandoned their territories, perhaps due to unsuccessful pairings.  By late August, birds were spotted consistently in only 20 of the 26 territories.  This correlates well with previous observations.  This does not indicate that those territories won’t be occupied next year.


A total of 7 chicks were observed in early July (of which one was later lost) (Fig.3). We believe that an additional 2 were hatched (surviving the summer) but went unobserved until late summer thus raising the 2014 chick count to 9.  The adults in that particular nesting area, acted extremely nervous whenever we approached, and when observed together, always moved apart. One adult would try to lead us away while the other would swim into an adjacent bay thick with reeds and therefore inaccessible by boat.  Despite their behaviour, which mirrored other adults with young, chicks of this pair were not spotted until September.


Another pair, with two chicks spotted in July, also nested in an area adjoining a reed-choked bay (also inaccessible by boat).  One of those chicks, after the initial sighting, wasn’t seen again until late summer.  The other, we believe, didn’t survive.


The numbers of chicks that hatched and survived the summer were down from the 14 reported in 2013.  By 2 July 2014, we had observed 7 of the 9 chicks mentioned above.


We also observed one adult on a nest that day (Fig. 4).  The nest was on the edge of a beaver lodge and was only about 4 inches out of the water.  This is typical, as a loon’s legs are positioned at the rear of the body (unlike legs of ducks and geese) to aid diving.  Loons usually nest on the water’s edge, on fallen trees, beaver lodges or other protrusions.  This allows them to dive directly into the water in order to leave the nest, as they cannot walk easily on land.  During the subsequent two days following these observations of the nest, the park received 5 inches of rain, causing the lake to rise 8 inches.  On The 8 July count we observed that the nest had been abandoned.  No additional chicks were observed on the lake during the July/August period.  This suggests that the unexpected and rapid rise in water level probably drowned that nest and any others where eggs were still present.

Without direct observation, we can only surmise that the reduction in hatched chicks was due in part to this rise in lake level.  The sudden rise in lake level also serves to illustrate a disastrous possibility (for nesting loons) that could occur as a result of a large boat wake crashing onto a loon nest during the critical period, referenced above.


During our last count in late September, we found 9 adults and 13 juveniles.  8 of the juveniles and 3 adults occupied previously observed territories, while the others swam freely in the middle of the lake.  This suggests that birds that weren’t occupying territories were ones that had flown in from other water bodies, which they are known to do during the migratory period.  It is common for most of the adults to leave in late August and early September, leaving the juveniles to fend for themselves, to await growth of needed flight feathers and then to migrate without adult supervision in late September and October.  Only one of the above-noted adults was still with its juvenile, other adults having presumably already begun their migration. 


We also noted that by late September all the remaining adults had either changed or were in the process of changing to their winter plumage, which is dark grey on the upper body, head and neck, and light grey/white on the bottom, with a grey beak.  They closely resemble juveniles; the main difference being that the juveniles have a distinct light scalloped edge on the rear of their small top wing feathers (Fig. 5).  A second identifying feature can be observed if one observes  beak colouration.  Juveniles have a white-tipped beak while the tips of adult beaks are black (see photos).  The juveniles are known to retain their colouring for the first 2-3 years. They are thought to make their first trip back to the breeding areas on Madge Lake at about age 4.  They will often remain unpaired until their fifth or sixth year of life.


I heartily  thank the two Park Interpreters, Dayna Guertin and Kortney Kosheluk, who I met in mid-June (helping them develop teaching materials relating to the Madge Lake loons for their interpretive programs).  They also accompanied us on the 8 July count enabling me to  familiarize them with loon behaviours, nesting areas and territories.  I also provided them with a number of documents on the Common Loon for their use.  They were very enthusiastic about the Madge Lake loons, and went on to use the material provided, as well as other information and material, in their programs throughout the summer.   I hope to continue this very productive relationship in the future.  Thank you, Park Supervisor, Erin Saunders  and Greg Podovinnikoff, Park Maintenance Supervisor. You have both been extremely supportive of the YFBTA Loon Initiatives program, the CLLS program and loon awareness programs within the park.

The Madge Lake Loon survey is part of the Canadian Lakes Loon Survey (CLLS), a program operated by the federal agency, Bird Studies Canada (BSC).  As in previous years, in 2014, Common Loons observed on Madge Lake were observed, recorded and reported to CLLS.  That initiative was orchestrated by the Yellowhead Flyway Birding Trail Association (YFBTA), and sponsored by the Madge Lake Cabin Owners’ Association (MLCOA). A partnership comprised of YFBTA, MLCOA, Duck Mountain Provincial Park and Nature Saskatchewan cooperated in working toward public education to make Madge Lake a “loon-friendly” lake.  I would like to thank those organizations.  Plans are already in place to continue the partnership in 2015.


I also wish to thank Les Schmidt and members of the Madge Lake Cottage Owners Association, who have kindly agreed to sponsor the survey and reimburse the YFBTA for the annual Canadian Lakes Loon Survey participation fee ($35.00) and who allowed me to present our program and findings at their annual general meeting.  Rob Wilson of the YFBTA, who initiated the Madge Lake survey, continues to closely collaborate on the YFBTA Lake Loon initiatives Committee and in the preparation of the CLLS annual report to BSC.  He also acts as co-editor and is making application for possible grants in 2015.

A big thanks to all those who accompanied Nancy and I on our counts this year, including Barry Gallop, Louise Gurry, Liz Graham, Sharon Korb and Kevin Streat.  Those extra sets of eyes were invaluable.  Thank you to the persons who reported their sightings to me, including Les Schmidt, Scott Sears, Billy Dutcheshen, Bill Graham, Clark Gabel, Ken Cottenie, Barb Elsasser and Gary Gabel.  These sightings help us correlate data with our counts.


We encourage any interested park residents and/or visitors to participate in future counts by reporting any sightings to Doug Welykholowa (306-590-8301) and/or Rob Wilson (306-744-8140).  If you want to participate in future counts, and have your own boat, we can provide map sheets used to record the data and we can discuss where and what you should be observing, and actions (which tend to stress the loons while you observe them) to be avoided.




Doug Welykholowa

Chairperson, YFBTA Madge Lake Loon Survey Committee









Figure 1a - 2014 Madge Lake Loon Survey Summary
















9 *

13 **

*  Includes one adult with its juvenile - the mate was not seen & may have departed

** 8 juveniles occupied successful nesting areas - others were freely roaming middle of lake




Figure 1b – 2013 Madge Lake Loon Survey Summary (for comparison above)















Not Observed

Not Observed

Not Observed


Figure 1c – Previous Survey Year’s Surviving Juvenile counts

Year               Juveniles

2005               07
2006               09
2007               08
2008               07
2009               13
2010               13
2011               07
2012               Data not available to author at time of writing
2013               14
2014               08



Figure 2 - 2014 Madge Lake Loon Territories

click on map to enlarge

Figure 3 - Loons with Chicks in Early July 2014


Figure 4 - Loon on Nest, 2 July 2014



Figure 5 - Adult and Juvenile Colouring Summer vs Fall


Note #1:  Note difference in colouration between August (summer) plumage and Sept (winter) plumage in adult Common Loons


Note #2:  Note colour difference between juvenile bird and adult bird in winter plumage.