Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Volunteers Needed Saturday to Survey Adirondack Loons

The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Adirondack Program has issued a call for volunteers to help census loons on Adirondack lakes as part of the 11th Annual Adirondack Loon Census taking place from 8:00–9:00 a.m. on Saturday, July 21. With the help of local Adirondack residents and visitor volunteers, the census enables WCS to collect important data on the status of the breeding loon population in and around the Adirondack Park and across New York State. The results help guide management decisions and policies affecting loons.

Census volunteers report on the number of adult and immature loons and loon chicks that they observe during the hour-long census. Similar loon censuses will be conducted in other states throughout the Northeast simultaneously, and inform a regional overview of the population’s current status.  One of the major findings of the 2010 census: The Adirondack loon population has almost doubled since the last pre-census analysis in the 1980s, and now totals some 1,500–2,000 birds. A new analysis however, demonstrates the threat environmental pollution poses for these iconic Adirondack birds. 

Anyone interested in volunteering can get more information about how to sign up by visiting www.wcsadirondacks.org , or by calling 518-891-8872 or emailing adkloon@wcs.org.

The Lake George Association coordinates volunteers on Lake George; multiple volunteers are needed to cover 176 miles of shoreline simultaneously during the hour of the census. To register and sign up for a section of Lake George to monitor, please contact the LGA at 518-668-3558. The LGA will provide information on how to participate, and a data sheet.

The Paul Smith’s Visitor Interpretive Center’s Adirondack Birding Center is recruiting volunteers for the census as well. Census volunteers sign up to monitor a lake from 8-9 a.m. on census day. For more information call Brian McAllister at (518) 327-6241.

An recent extensive study of New York’s Adirondack loon population has revealed that mercury contamination can lead to population declines of the iconic bird. The research effort was a joint project between the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

For nearly 10 years, researchers from these organizations followed mercury contamination throughout the aquatic food chain, from zooplankton to the Common Loon, in Cranberry and Lows lakes as well as in other bodies of water.  They found that loons with elevated mercury levels produced significantly fewer chicks than those with low mercury levels, particularly those breeding on the more acidic lakes that are common in the Adirondack Park.

The newly released report entitled Long-term Monitoring and Assessment of Mercury Based on Integrated Sampling Efforts Using the Common Loon, Prey Fish, Water, and Sediment highlights scientific findings from 1998 to 2007 that spanned the Adirondack region of New York State.

Although naturally present at low levels, mercury becomes an air pollutant largely through emissions from coal-fired power plants. In some areas, cement plants and mining-related industries also contribute to mercury pollution. Airborne mercury eventually returns to the earth in rain, snow, and fog droplets, as well as in dry form.

Winds carry the pollutant from distant point sources. Adirondack lakes-where aquatic loons live and raise young-are exposed to mercury contamination deposited in the environment. Mercury is toxic at even small levels, and accumulates in animals as it progresses up the food chain. Loonsfeed at the highest level in the food web, which increases their risk of the toxic effects of mercury exposure.

Scientists found that mercury was present in loons at a level that put the birds at risk of reproductive harm-21 percent of male loons studied and 8 percent of females were at a high risk of behavioral and reproductive impacts based on the levels of mercury in their bodies.

Adult loons with high mercury levels also lack good parenting skills. For example, these birds do not incubate eggs consistently enough for chicks to hatch. Thus, the high mercury birds experienced lower reproductive success than the low mercury birds because of the reduced hatching rate of the eggs.

“From this study we know that more than half of the adult Adirondack loons are at moderate to high risk of mercury poisoning,” says Zoë Smith, director of WCS’s Adirondack Program. “The long-term survival of loons in the Park will depend on reducing mercury in the atmosphere.”

In December of 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards Rule that requires coal-fired power plants to update their mercury pollution control technologies. However, overseas emissions are also a problem. BRI scientists have been involved in helping to inform mercury emissions policy on both domestic and international levels.

“The good news is that efforts to control mercury pollution here in the United States have been very beneficial, as we have discovered in our extensive mercury studies throughout the Northeast and in the Great Lakes region,” says David C. Evers, Ph.D., executive director and chief scientist of BRI. “One of BRI’s core missions is to support the policymaking process with good science. Our findings in this loon study demonstrate the need for the EPA’s ruling and highlight the importance of mercury tracking through better national and international monitoring programs.”

Dr. Evers, as a member of the UN’s Environment Programme, is actively involved in the development of a global treaty on mercury monitoring, which is expected to be ratified in 2013. “We are learning a great deal from our work in the U.S., and we have an opportunity to expand our knowledge on an international scale to help ensure that effective policies are put into place and are appropriately monitored over time.”

This long-term research was conducted with financial and in-kind support from NYSERDA, Wildlife Conservation Society, The Wild Center, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and Audubon International. Additional financial and in-kind support was provided by the Freed Foundation, Nordlys Foundation, John and Evelyn Trevor Charitable Foundation, SUNY ESF’s Adirondack Ecological Center, Paul Smith’s College Watershed Stewardship Program, and numerous other organizations and private donors.


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