Sunday, November 11, 2012

Taughannock Loon Watch

      Bill Evans, creator of Old Bird (a nonprofit which facilitates acoustic monitoring of avian flight calls), discovered back in 1992 that Common Loons had a significant southbound migration route over Cayuga Lake. For those geographically challenged, Cayuga Lake is the longest of the glacial Finger Lakes in central New York, stretching 40 miles north of Ithaca. In the fall, Common Loons congregate on Lake Ontario and when winds are favorable from the NW, they head south following Cayuga Lake and eventually over land towards the Atlantic coast.

Common Loon fall migration route
      Between 1993 and the mid 2000’s, dedicated loon counters position themselves at Taughannock (a prominent point along Cayuga Lake) every morning for two hours from late October through early December. Thousands of loons were counted annually with the highest seasonal total of 13,250 in 1995.

Taughannock Falls State Park - point
Taughannock pier where the loon watch is conducted
      Seeing that the count hasn’t been conducted for several years and this fall marks the 20th anniversary, Bill Evens invited me to be the chief counter at Taughannock and I gladly accepted the position. I have now been counting for 13 days and the current total is 4,254 Common Loons (and 4 Red-throated Loons).

Yours truly at the loon watch
      The counts are conducted for two hours every morning starting 15 minutes before sunrise and split into eight 15 min periods. The first several periods make up the first 'wave' of loons - those lifting off Cayuga Lake further north. Halfway through the two hours, there's a break and then the second 'wave' arrives, those from Lake Ontario. Unlike the first wave, these birds have already gained altitude and are sometimes only specks in the sky. Depending on weather, either wave can be exceptionally larger than the other. On November 3rd, I had well over 500 loons in the last 15 min period. By the end of that period, the loons have ceased. Apparently they were stalled, probably due to weather, and then came through all at once.

Common Loon (Photo © Laura Keene)
      When you have big days such as November 3rd, you'll also have slow days. Fortunately, Cayuga Lake is also the migratory route for a lot of other species including all three scoters, Long-tailed Ducks and thousands of Brant. With Ithaca, Cornell University and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology right at the southern end, rarities are reported regularly so it's never a dull moment on the lake. Over the past couple weeks I've had Purple Sandpiper, Parasitic Jaeger, Red Phalarope, and finches galore. Today a Northern Gannet was reported just north of Taughannock so who knows what might fly by during one of my counts!

Be sure to check back for another update...