The Annual Loon Count on Lake Vermilion

Counting Loons for 36 Years!

Lake Vermilion has always been known for its large population of loons. To lake residents and frequent visitors, the loon has been something special. One never tires of the haunting cries in the early morning or late evening hours, the sight of a loon cruising the open waters of the lake with his head below water looking for a meal, or the special scene of a loon chick — or maybe two — riding on a parent’s back to keep warm.

In the early 1980s, news of large loon die-offs off the coast of Florida had the Association worried. They could have been “our” loons. So in 1983 the Vermilion Lake Association (known then as the Sportsmen’s Club of Lake Vermilion) began keeping count of the loons on Lake Vermilion every summer.

The task was quite large: thousands of acres of water, many bays and islands, and a bird that wouldn’t sit still long enough to be counted only once. But if enough volunteers could be on the water on the same day, at the same time, an accurate count could be taken. Today, the Lake Vermilion Loon Count is the longest running, single lake count of common loons anywhere in the United States.

The Loon Counting Process

Thanks to the volunteers who currently traverse their territories so carefully each July. Since the beginning, 139 volunteers have participated. Of those, 61 have earned their 5-year patch. Quite a few have been involved for 25 years!

How Does One Count Loons?

Indeed, counting loons can be tricky. They don’t like to hold still. They spend extended periods underwater. And the chicks sometimes ride on the backs of the adults, appearing as only a strange bump under the feathers on the parent’s back. But practice helps, and the Vermilion Lake Association has been doing this since 1983.

The Association has divided Lake Vermilion into 23 territories. A team of 2 to 4 persons in a small boat slowly traverses its territory once. Each back-and-forth pass is about 100 yards from the last. All sightings are carefully verified through binoculars after a slow approach by boat, if necessary. The search usually takes 2 to 3 hours.

The search starts at the same time of day (9:00 a.m.), at the same time of year (mid-week during the 2nd week of July).  This week and time of day is selected to provide good visibility, low competing boat traffic and to allow chicks to grow a bit to be more easily seen. If weather is a problem, the loon count is delayed a couple days.

Results are phoned in to a coordinator for each end of the lake. The numbers are relayed to the Loon Count Coordinator Claire Zwieg, who tallies the results for the Board of Directors and for the membership.

The “Loon Count” Volunteers and Their Territories

Thanks to the team of volunteers who currently traverse the territories pictured in the map.

If you’d like to join this team, please contact west-end coordinator Claire Zwieg or east-end coordinator Ellen Hintz. Alternate counters are often needed. And a territory opens up periodically

.loon-count Click to view large map.

Loon Survey Report for 2017 by Claire Zwieg

A beautiful day greeted 70 volunteer loon counters early on Monday, July 10, as they spread out over the 40,000 acres of Lake Vermilion searching for loons for the 35th consecutive year. The calm waters got a bit choppy later in the morning, making loons harder to see during their shorter stay on the surface.

Nevertheless, 202 loons were spotted this year compared to 262 in 2016. This included 45 pairs, 29 chicks, and 83 singles. The Tower (East) end of the lake had 133 loons while the Cook (West) end had 69.

For counting purposes, the lake is divided into 23 smaller areas where volunteers are assigned to look for loons.

The information is compiled and sent to the MN Department of Natural Resources. Now entering the state’s 38th year of monitoring loons, there is still a growing interest in protecting and watching over our state bird.

Identifying Leg Bands on Lake Vermilion Loons

loon-bandsBiologists with the US Geological Survey banded eight adult and two juvenile common loons on Lake Vermilion in July 2011. All loons were banded either in Rice Bay or near Pine Island.

Six of the adults were marked with a silver leg band with a archival geolocator tag attached. The geolocator tag records location, temperature, and dive depth. Loons with a geolocator must be recaptured within five years to recover the data the tag has recorded. USGS scientists plan to return to Lake Vermilion during July 2012 to locate previously banded loons.

The three male birds also received a satellite transmitter, so an antenna may be visible.

To assist the USGS in recovering the geolocator data, please report sightings of banded loons to USGS Research Wildlife Biologist Kevin Kenow ( or 608-781-6278).

Leg Band Data for Lake Vermilion Loons

Sat. Code Date Banded Where Banded Age & Gender Right Leg Left Leg
Jul 2011 E of Pine Island Adult Unk Red / Silver Blue stripe / Green stripe
Jul 2011 E of Pine Island Adult Unk Green / Silver Blue stripe only
V4 Jul 2011 Rice Bay Adult M Red stripe / Silver Green stripe / Silver with Geotag
Jul 2011 Rice Bay Adult F Yellow / Silver Blue stripe / Silver with Geotag
V3 Jul 2011 N of Pine Island in Narrows Area Adult M Red stripe / Silver White / Silver with Geotag
Jul 2011 N of Pine Island in Narrows Area Adult F Green stripe / Silver Red / Silver with Geotag
V1 Jul 2011 N of Pine Island in Canfield Bay Area Adult M Yellow stripe / Silver Green / Silver with Geotag
Jul 2011 N of Pine Island in Canfield Bay Area Adult F Blue / Silver Blue / Silver with Geotag

Guidelines for Observing Loon Leg Bands

  • Bands are most readily observed when loons preen. Loons will spend about 5 minutes preening (putting oil on their feathers) about every 30-60 minutes if they are comfortable with their surroundings. Once a preening bout ends, the birds will often return to foraging. Following a stressful event (disturbance by people, eagles, boats, intruding loons), loons will preen to reduce stress.
  • On BOTH legs, note the colors and the order (upper/lower) they are in. All banded loons have at least one silver USFWS (US Fish and Wildlife Service) band in addition to the color bands. Some loons will have a single METAL/SILVER USFWS band with no color bands (infrequent) or only one color band on a leg. If you believe a loon is unbanded, you must see both legs completely to know with certainty there are no bands.

Lake Vermilion Loon Migration

Kevin Kenow, Research Wildlife Biologist with the USGS, heads a team using implanted satellite transmitters to identify loon migration routes, staging areas, and wintering range. Beginning in July 2011, three Lake Vermilion loons were added to the study.
The results of their study will be presented here in the fall of 2012.

Monitoring the Location of Our Lake Vermilion Loons

You can monitor the migration and current location of the three Lake Vermilion loons (designated V1, V3, and V4) at this USGS website.

Survey Year Number of Chicks Total Number of Loons
1983 33 166
1984 24 150
1985 24 132
1986 27 157
1987 22 154
1988 33 144
1989 22 157
1990 31 154
1991 33 181
1992 33 184
1993 49 331
1994 48 284
1995 43 248
1996 39 237
1997 23 234
1998 18 215
1999 39 260
2000 26 256
2001 44 242
2002 13 208
2003 32 298
2004 14 286
2005 36 228
2006 36 284
2007 21 253
2008 42 281
2009 29 281
2010 23 221
2011 17 202
2012 27 207
2013 33 265
2014 29 248
2015 46 297
2016 34 262
2017 29 202
2018 38 235