By Linda Winnie

This time of year, large numbers of loons are migrating from their summer nesting grounds. You can contribute to our understanding of this phenomenon by watching for these birds and reporting any color-banded loons you see or any large flocks you observe.

Sixty-nine loons have been captured and banded in northwest Montana over the last two summers as part of a cooperative long-term population study. Each loon is banded with 4 bands (2 per leg), using a combination of 3 color bands and 1 metal USFWS band. To see leg bands on loons, watch them until they either preen or do a “leg-flap.” Note which colors are on which legs and what color is closer to the foot of each leg. Also, try to determine whether the loon is an adult or juvenile. A good description of where the bird was observed (e.g. GPS position, map location, or precise directions for getting there) is also important. According to Lynn Kelly, President of the Montana Loon Society, the best time to survey loons this time of year is very late afternoon. They have been feeding all day and slowly start “rafting up” as the light levels drop in the late afternoon.

Please report your sightings to Gael Bissell of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, 751-4580 or gbissell@state.mt.us. Gael is Co-Chair of the Montana Common Loon Working Group.

Most of Montana’s Common Loons have probably already left by now. Previous band returns indicate that the Common Loons who nest in northwest Montana winter off of California’s central coast and probably follow the Columbia River at least part way to the West Coast. But a few stragglers may still be spotted, so it is worth checking for bands. Even if you can’t see all four bands, partial information on band color – or just the simple fact that there are bands on the bird, can be useful. Then Gael can get someone out there with a scope or a boat to gather more information about the bands.

Most of the loons we’ll see in November, however, are migrating from Canada. Gael would like to get information on any large flocks (50 or more birds) that are sighted – location and size of flock, date and time of observation.

According to Dan Casey, we can expect to see large flocks locally on Flathead Lake, near Lakeside and Polson. Other likely nearby spots are Hungry Horse Reservoir, Lake Koocanusa and the lakes in the Seeley-Swan area. If you travel to other parts of Montana, look especially on the larger bodies of water. Recently (October 21), John Carlson found 98 Common Loons on the east side of Nelson Reservoir, just east of Malta, and speculates that there were more on other parts of the reservoir – perhaps almost 200 in all!

Finally, watch for any loons that might be in trouble, and call MT FWP to get help for them. On the evening of October 18, Gael Bissell, Norm Merz (DNRC), and Dan Casey rescued an immature Common Loon that was in trouble in Somers Bay. The bird was emaciated because it had become entangled in monofilament, and couldn’t dive for food. The monofilament was wrapped around its bill, wings and legs. The bird had come close to shore, where it was trying to feed on insects and anything else it could find on the bottom in shallow water. Bob Rost noticed it while birding, and reported the problem to FWP. The rescuers were able to capture the bird, cut away the fishing line, and apply antiseptic to some minor wounds. They also banded it, and then released it back into Flathead Lake to continue on its way. Gael notes that loons who are having trouble diving often move to the shallow waters near shore to try to feed. So keep an eye out for such behavior, and contact Gael if you think a bird needs help.