Bonnie Eletz, right, peers out across Thompson Lake in Oxford while her longtime friend, Peggy Dorf, drives the boat Saturday during the annual loon count. The two women have been participating in the loon count together for over two decades and often have children, grandchildren or friends helping. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

OXFORD — It was a cool, clear Saturday morning when Peggy Dorf and Bonnie Eletz set out on Thompson Lake searching for loons.

For 30 minutes every year, on the third Saturday of July, Dorf and Eletz join an estimated 1,400 other volunteers across the state in the Maine Audubon Society’s annual loon count.

This year is particularly special, Dorf said. It is the 200th day of the 200th year of Maine.

According to the Audubon Society, loons are important environmental indicators. Their presence, or lack of, provides clues to the state of the water quality and fish populations.

For almost four decades, Audubon has coordinated the annual loon count. According to Maine Audubon, the adult loon population has increased by 70% since the first count in 1983.

Five is the maximum number of loons Dorf and Eletz have counted in their section of Thompson Lake, located in Oxford. Some years, however, they don’t see a single one.

The count happens at the same time each year no matter the weather. Cold, rainy years can be particularly difficult for spotting loons, however this year was good, they said.

For 30 minutes early Saturday morning, they cruised around the northernmost section of the lake in Eletz’s boat, keeping their eyes peeled for the characteristic dark, sleek bodies.

In total, they saw five loons, the same number as the previous year.

Dorf and Eletz have participated in the annual loon count for more than 20 years. Some years their children and grandchildren join them. Other times, they do it themselves.

The women became involved years ago as members of the Thompson Lake Environmental Association. To them, the health of the lake is incredibly important, from the quality of the water to the creatures depending on it. Loons in particular are some of their favorites.

“Loons are fascinating animals,” Eletz said. “There’s just something that compels you to watch them. Maybe it’s because of their unique noise.

Dorf is responsible for managing the effort at Thompson Lake as loon count coordinator. At 4,415 acres, the lake is too large to be covered by one boat during the 30-minute count. Instead, she divided the lake into sections for other volunteers to search.

After the count is finished, volunteers around the lake call to report the number of loons spotted. Dorf tallies the total and sends it off to Maine Audubon. Although the organization recently instituted a digital reporting system, Dorf feels more comfortable submitting it by mail.

Usually, she reports between 12 to 14 loons on the lake each year. According to Dorf, the numbers have remained constant in all the years she has been involved with the project.

Normally she would share a report on the loon population in person at the Thompson Lake Environmental Association meeting, she said. This year, due to COVID-19, she will do it over Zoom.

“Fortunately we are one of the cleanest lakes in the state,” Dorf said. “But it’s still not nearly as clean as it used to be,” Eletz added.

Tracy Hart is the lead conservationist monitoring the loon population for the nonprofit. In an email, she wrote that recent laws and regulations in Maine have positively impacted the loon population.

Up until a few years ago, lead poisoning was the leading cause of death among adult loons, she said. In 2013, the Maine Legislature passed an act banning lead tackle weighing an ounce or less, or measuring 2.5 inches or less. This law fully came into effect in September 2017.

However, lead poisoning still remains an issue, according to Hart. Audubon has previously launched exchange and buyback programs to encourage fishermen to forgo the deadly tackle.

Similarly, another law in Maine prohibits creating wakes within 200 feet of shores, protecting eggs in near-shore nests from drowning.

Yet, threats remain, especially during the summer nesting season. According to Hart, deaths due to boat-related trauma have risen to become the leading cause of death in recent years.

Climate change, disease and parasites are a few other challenges loons face. The quality of the lake water, however, is one of the most important factors.

“Loons are dependent upon clear, clean lakes and good nesting habitat, which require vigilance and extensive public participation to maintain,” she wrote.

People should be cautious to observe loons at a safe distance so as not to disturb loons feeding or caring for their young, Hart wrote.

“Loons that look like they are about to slip off their nest into the water, or loons on the water that flap their wings and travel across the water … and vocalizing, or loons that stop feeding and raise their heads up high to watch you are telling you that you are too close. If you see those behaviors, back off and watch from a distance with binoculars,” she explained.

Loons are territorial birds that come back to the same nesting ground each year. Dorf and Eletz said they often recognize the same birds each season.

“We see these loons year after year,” Eletz said. “Some of these loons have been our friends for years. Of course we can tell them apart!”

One in particular stood out because of its abnormally large size. For years, the loon came back to Thompson Lake. The two women combined their last names and named him Eldorf — and his mate Mrs. Eldorf.

Growing up as family friends, Dorf and Eletz visited Thompson Lake each summer beginning when they were children. Eventually, as adults the women each purchased a home on the lake. They are so close that they often refer to each other as cousins.

Now, decades after their first loon count, the women continue setting out bright and early each year to aid in the Audubon effort. It is an experience they both cherish doing together.

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