RUMFORD – Maine’s adult loon population rebounded this year after two consecutive years of unprecedented declines. Estimates based on count samplings for southern Maine jumped from 2,432 in 2007 to 2,784 in 2008.

While that’s good news for loon lovers, the reason behind the upswing is likely to remain an unsolved mystery until money can be found, enabling more diligent research, according to Susan Gallo, a wildlife biologist and director of the Maine Loon Project at Maine Audubon in Falmouth.

“Especially after the last two years of dropping, it is good to see those numbers jump back up again,” Gallo said Wednesday afternoon by phone. “The bounce back is a relief and puts the population back on a healthy track.”

No one knows just how healthy the loons are because volunteers aren’t asked to monitor productivity. They just record the number of adult loons and chicks they see in a 30-minute window one July morning on one lake or pond.

Volunteers are needed for the 2009 count, which will be July 18.

Results from the 2008 Maine Loon Count’s 25th anniversary revealed that a record turnout of more than 1,000 volunteers recorded 2,083 adult loons and 184 chicks after surveying 332 lakes and ponds statewide.

Of the statewide total, 1,728 adults and 164 chicks were seen on 280 lakes in the southern half of Maine.

Biologists take a sampling from a region’s results per size class of lakes, then calculate the number of loons on average to determine population estimates.

Using the 2008 sample, Maine Audubon estimated the adult common loon population in southern Maine at 2,784. That’s up from 2,432 adults in 2007 and 2,595 in 2006.

Conversely, the estimate of southern Maine’s chick population for 2008 was 265, a drop from 2007’s nearly record high of 422.

The chick population, however, has remained stable over time despite swings in populations, which are typical from year to year. Not so with adults.

For 22 years, Maine’s adult loon population climbed steadily, despite a few small upward spikes and minor downturns, Gallo said.

“What was really different was two years ago when we saw the first drop, and then, last year when we saw the second drop. That was very unusual and, again, we don’t really have good answers to what happened,” she said.

“We were worried that there would be a third drop this year and that’s where we were like, ‘OK, if this happens again, we really have to start looking for an explanation of what we’re finding,’ and, I still think we should be looking for an explanation of what we’re finding,” Gallo said.

Loons don’t go through any known breeding cycles, because it takes from seven to 11 years to breed. On average, first attempts at breeding start at age 7, but are mostly unsuccessful due to inexperience, Gallo said.

“So the bump this year could be from, potentially, cohorts that hatched seven or even 10 years ago. So, it’s not like what people are saying, ‘So you must have had a good year last year of productivity, so they’re coming back.’

“It doesn’t turn around that quickly. They’re long-lived birds,” Gallo said.

Loons live 25 to 30-plus years, but don’t get adult feathers until the age of 2.

“Everybody always thought, well, you know, when they got their adult feathers, they’re ready to breed. But, the fact is, they get their adult feathers and then they go hang out on the ocean and wander around for quite longer than anybody thought,” she said.

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