What does it take to bring back an icon to Northern New York? That’s the question that has left habitat managers scratching their heads for the past decade. After construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project, much of the original habitat for shore-nesting birds was flooded out. As it turns out, with four cedar logs, some natural vegetation, and a lot of patience, there might be some hope for restoring the not-so-common loon to the St. Lawrence River.
“Here in the St. Lawrence-Franklin D. Roosevelt Power Project area, there are a few loons that nest in the general area, but there’s open water flowing so it’s not necessarily a great spot,” explains Mike Morgan, who manages the Habitat Improvement Projects (HIPs) on the St. Lawrence.
When the Power Project was up for relicensing back in the late 1990s, the Service, along with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) and other agencies identified potential impacts of the power dam that should be taken into consideration. As a result, the New York Power Authority has helped fund, construct, and implement at least ten Habitat Improvement Projects targeting a variety of fish and wildlife potentially impacted by the dam.
One of those species is the Common Loon. “Loons are kind of a charismatic species that people care a lot about and are considered for a lot of hydropower projects” says Morgan. Loons are pretty susceptible to water level fluctuations since they generally nest close to the shoreline. “So a pretty common technique to mitigate that is to put out rafts in suitable areas for loons to nest on because the rafts will float up and down with the water and still be easy for the loons to access,” Mike explains.
After roughly five years of trying this on Lake St. Lawrence with no loons nesting on the rafts, some were ready to give up. Having a “you build it, they will come” mentality doesn’t quite work out for loons and other species, as Mike explains. It has been a process of trial-and-error to find areas where placing artificial nesting platforms most effectively meets the needs of breeding loons. Not to mention the amount of energy it takes to haul these water-logged rafts in and out each season. Some years, geese have taken up residency on the rafts before the loons could, posing some competition for breeding space.
“One of our concerns is actually bald eagles, which is kind of funny because we like to have bald eagles around and they’re a pretty charismatic species in their own right, but they’re big enough to make life unpleasant for nesting loons,” says Mike.
Finally, on the tenth anniversary of the start of the HIPs, the first loon chick hatched and fledged from one of the artificial nesting platforms this past summer. That’s not the only good news – 75 osprey chicks hatched on installed nesting poles, and roughly 11,500 common tern chicks hatched on artificial nesting structures during the 10 years of management efforts for St. Lawrence River birds.
Biologists Steve Patch and Scott Schlueter from the Service continue to meet each year with other representatives from the NYSDEC, St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, Northern New York Audubon Society, the Power Authority, and the local government to review progress and make future decisions about Habitat Improvement Projects on the St. Lawrence River.