Family outing: loon count on Sheepscot Lake

Nine-year-old Harper Winkley sits in his grandparents’ boat searching for loons during the annual loon count on Sheepscot Lake. (photo by Pamela McKenney)

by Pamela McKenney

Throughout the night they called from the lake. Their wild, haunting voices are unmistakable and considered by many to be the definitive sound of summer here in Maine. I gladly accept the sleep disturbance to hear them any time, but this night was particularly exciting as I anticipated participation in my first official Audubon Loon Count.

In the morning, all across Maine, bird enthusiasts would traverse to their designated sections of lakes, ponds, and rivers to count loons between 7 and 7:30 a.m. It is important to limit observers and observations to a particular time and space to ensure accuracy. For example, Sheepscot Pond, in Palermo, is divided into four sections. This year our counters included; Joe and Ursula Burke, Gary and Marge Miller, Lynda and Dave Pound, myself and husband Dale McKenney assisted by our 9-year-old grandson, Harper Winkley. The Loon Count on Sheepscot is one of several conservation efforts supported by the Sheepscot Lake Association of which Joe Burke, our loon count coordinator, is a long time member and currently serves on the board. Joe distributed materials well in advance of the count and asked us to record our direction of travel and time of observations using the chart and maps provided by the Audubon society.

Photo by Pamela McKenney

This year, on July 18, we woke Harper at 6:15 a.m. to dress and gather our equipment. We had our binoculars, camera, and papers ready to sight and document loons. The morning was cool and the water was shrouded in a light fog. At the mouth of the river, we traveled along the shore searching with binoculars. We had been watching them from a distance all summer, but would we spot one in our section this morning? Adding to the drama, the sun broke through the mist about half way through our circuit of the cove. But no loons.

At 7:20 a.m., we had crossed the main lake, and rounded the point into Turtle Cove when Dale pointed and asked, “What’s that?”

With binoculars, Harper confirmed that the dark silhouette across the cove was a loon. He marked the time and location just as I spotted another loon deep in the curve of the shoreline. As we continued to circle avoiding close contact with the pair and with just eight minutes to complete our section of the lake, Dale said, “I think there’s something with that adult. Maybe a chick?” He was right. The chick was at first riding on the adult loon’s back, then swimming beside it.

At 7:30 a.m., just as our part in the count finished, a bald eagle swooped out of a tall pine at the end of Howell’s Shore. Harper also saw a pileated woodpecker and kingfisher as we cruised up-river to our dock. The presence of these birds is something we often take for granted but on this day the iconic loon was counted. Sheepscot Lake counters reported sighting four adults and one chick. For more information about loons and the results of the statewide count, check out these sites. The Audubon website offers an interesting pamphlet, Living in Loon Territory, and each explains what the loon calls may actually communicate. and


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