Heffley Lake loons are in danger, annual bird count finds

The Heffley Lake bird count helps determine the health of the lake and informs various organizations about changes in local waterfowl.
A chick rides on it’s mother’s back on Heffley Lake. Photo by Bill Jennejohn

Each year since 2009, members of the Heffley Lake Community Association’s (HLCA) Lake Stewardship Committee (LSC) track waterfowl through the Heffley Lake bird count, but over the last two years, the number of loons on the lake has decreased, causing concern among group members.

The Heffley Lake bird count began when members thought the waterfowl on the lake was dropping. Members began tracking birds each year and sending the information to the BC Lake Stewardship Society (BCLSS) and the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change to determine if that was the case. They also started participating in a common loon count with Birds Canada to assess the population of local loons each season.

Margaret Stewart takes part in the count each year, and she was inspired to track loons after reading an article from Birds Canada, which uses the information from the loon count for its Canadian Lakes Loon Survey (CLLS).

She and other LSC members gather a handful of times each spring and summer to count the waterfowl. They divide the lake into six areas and carefully observe wildlife, mark down their findings and discuss what they saw. Stewart said this approach helps reduce the chances birds are double counted.

“We might see a loon in one area, he’s gone under for a fish or something, then he’s way over in another area,” she explained. 

For Stewart, the return of loons when the ice starts to recede is a sign of the seasons changing.

“It’s exciting to hear those loons come back in the spring…when they come, it means ‘hey, spring is underway – summer is coming,” Stewart explained.

‘We’re not doing too well’

Two common loons floating on Heffley Lake. Photo by Bill Jennejohn

Last year, the Heffley Lake loon counters found an adult loon dead from blunt trauma and this season, they have yet to find any loon chicks, a departure from the past when Stewart said it was not uncommon to see loon chicks riding on their mothers’ back.

The lack of chicks on Heffley Lake this year could be part of a trend. Loon reproduction is on the decline, according to the data gathered in the CLLS.

Since the early 1990s, Canada-wide common loon reproduction has declined. Three decades ago, the average loon pair produced around 0.7 young. Recently, their reproduction sits around 0.55. If the trend keeps going and dips below 0.48, the populations of loons will dwindle.

Loons nest in the same location for as many years as possible, often fighting other loons to protect their claims. The long-term nesting location, combined with the fact that chicks are fed from a single lake during their rearing, indicates whether a lake is healthy, according to Kathy Jones, a biologist with Birds Canada who works on the CLLS.

However, the cause of a decline in chicks on Heffley Lake – and in Canada – isn’t clear. Various factors from human activity, variable water temperatures during breeding, predators, acid rain, mercury levels and climate change, are all hypothesized to harm loon reproduction.

Heffley Lake – beloved by wildlife and humans

Heffley Lake has boating, swimming, paddleboarding, fishing, wakeboarding and homes along the shoreline, all increasing human-wildlife encounters.

Human activity on the lake, which could potentially upset the loons’ habitat, include people disturbing nesting loons when they come across them – intentionally or by accident – as well as waves from wakeboarding.

Jones said loons often nest along shorelines, and the more undulations in a shoreline, the better the habitat for fish that loons enjoy. 

“The more natural vegetation on the shoreline, chances are that you find an appropriate location in the territory,” she said. 

But, shorelines can be a favourite place for people on a paddleboad or kayak to travel along, leading to loons leaping off their nests.

Another factor which poses a problem for nesting loons comes from wakeboarding.

Wake Boat waves are more powerful than the average boat, which can cause erosion on shorelines and stir up sediment that enters water intake for people’s homes on the lake, Jones explained.

“They have a very different mechanism to create waves. While they go very slowly, they make a very powerful wave that can have a greater impact on the shoreline,” he said.

Wakeboarding also stirs up siltation and algae at the bottom of the lake, as well as any garbage that’s settled in over the years.

“That affects fish, that affects birds – it could also affect the water supply,” Jones said.

Transport Canada is considering changing regulations around boating to separate types of watercraft allowed on lakes. Currently, regulations don’t allow for boat-specific bans. The HLCA got involved in the consultation process in 2021 because of concerns over environmental degredation from wakeboarding.

Transport Canada is currently soliciting public feedback until Aug. 16 from the public. 

Regardless of what’s causing the decline, there are important steps people can take to protect wildlife on the lake, from leaving nesting loons alone during the early spring and summer, to fishing with tackle that doesn’t contain lead. Reducing single-use plastics and considering how each person’s activities impact the environment are also ways to be more mindful in nature, according to Jones.

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