Yet another loony census

While we’re on the subject of censuses, I recently learned about another effort to count wildlife… one many of us can help with.

If you’re like me, memories of beautiful ocean bays in Nova Scotia, wilderness canoe trips in Algonquin Park, and afternoons at a Quebec cottage all have a soundtrack of the other-earthly call of the loon. Whether it’s the high cry, the “crazy laugh” tremolo, or the quiet warble, the almost-human noises have inspired songs and stories in aboriginal and later Canadian culture. The loon cuts an instantly recognizable profile, with its perfect pattern of black head, banded collar, and white breast.

But this iconic creature — found almost exclusively in Canada — is under stress. Researchers believe its numbers and territory have decreased over the past 150 years. Why? Acid rain is one culprit, as well as human activity in its various forms.

Now there’s an effort under way to count loons. The Canadian Lakes Loon Survey is an effort of Bird Studies Canada, a not-for-profit conservation organizations dedicated to advancing the understanding, appreciation and conservation of wild birds and their habitat. Canadians can join the survey by paying a modest fee (which makes you a member of BSC) and recording loon habitation at any Canadian lake (the more the better!) at three crucial points during the summer. The survey staff are compiling the information to follow loons year over year. They’re also interested in negative results, such as lakes without loons, or disappearances of loons, to understand better what is happening with the loons.

Although most of us think of the Common Loon (Gavia immer is the Latin name) when we say “loon,” there are other types of loons in Canada, and the survey is interested in those as well.

While counting loons is the main aim, the survey also aims to increase understanding of how to protect loons. At the lake I visited this summer, I learned from a roadside poster that loons are disturbed by boats, even by quiet canoes. Any motion in the water that leads loons to come out from their shoreline nests can leave the young vulnerable to predation by animals such as turtles. Did you know that loons swallow gravel to help them grind food in their stomach? Lead shot in lakes can poison loons that swallow it, so hunters are asked not to use shot near lakes.

I’ve asked survey organizers for more information about the survey, and I’ll post this in the future.

Marine census now available

It’s ironic that “census” is a loaded word in the political context in Canada now, as Canada was a leader in the effort to take the global census of marine life over the past 10 years. First results of the census became available this week in the online journal Public Library of Science One. Canada’s contribution, entitled “From sea to sea: Canada’s three oceans of biodiversity” is not yet published. I’ll blog about it as soon as it appears. Media reports state that the census of the west coast of Canada shows the lowest number of species of all regions surveyed. It will be interesting to discover why.
The census of marine life was a huge international undertaking, on the scale of the Human Genome Project. More than 1200 new species have been discovered through the census so far; more discoveries are expected as reports roll in from many regions of the world. Four-fifths of the world’s species are in the oceans, and it’s the true final frontier. I remember visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California about 10 years ago, and learning about newly discovered jellyfish (medussa) and squids. Last year, I learned at Science North in Sudbury that a squid larger than the giant squid had been discovered, sending scientists looking for a new moniker (they settled on “colossal squid”).
New submarine technology has allowed the census and other scientific exploration to extraordinary depths. But the census report authors point out that we’re trying to document many species under threat from overfishing, acidification, and habitat destruction. More when we hear from Canada.