Save The Loons w/ Walter Piper

Show Notes

This week on The Average Conservationist Podcast, Marcus sits down with Professor of Biology from Chapman University, Walter Piper. Walter has spent the last 30 years studying Loons in the upper regions of the midwest, specifically Wisconsin and most recently Minnesota. The loon population continues to decline in these areas and Walter and his team are researching the cause and how to potentially right the ship going forward. Recently, Walter and his team lost some funding for the research being done in Minnesota and need some help in order to fully staff their efforts and attack this research with the proper amount of people. Head over to to learn more about what Walter and his team are doing as well and to donate to their research efforts.

Show Transcript

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Ladies and gentlemen, happy Wednesday to you out there. I apologize I missed you guys last week but we've got a great episode for you today. Today I'm gonna be joined by Walter Piper. And Walter is a professor of biology at Chapman University. And Walter has really spent the last 30 years study, excuse me, studying loons in both Wisconsin and most recently in [00:02:00] Minnesota because of an issue that was more or less brought to his attention about a decline in the population of loons in these given areas the northern upper Midwest region.

In order really, we get into it in the episode, but really one of the big things like the biggest takeaway is in order to maintain the research that Walter and his team are doing every summer again, currently in west, or excuse me, in Minnesota right now they lost some of their funding.

And they are trying to raise some funds to be able to adequately do their research and complete this project. Because as Walter and I get into , they've been able to learn a lot over the almost 30 years that they've been studying wounds in Wisconsin.

And what they're hoping is with a few more years of research in Minnesota, that they can lean on some of that [00:03:00] information, hopefully, because there's a lot of similarities between the region where they're at and hopefully figure out what's causing this decline and work with local agencies to, to put a stop to it to try to correct the situation, to try to right the wrong.

So that, hopefully in, 10 years we're not talking about the loon landing on some lists that are not where it needs to be. And, especially for those kind of in the Midwest region . I know for me, and Walter and I talk about this kind of early on in the episode the loon has a lot of it brings back a lot of memories for people who spent or spend time in this part of the country.

And, listening to the very distinct call of the loon, watching him dive underwater, pop up, 7,500 yards away, and they're just it's an amazing animal. His animal the right word. It's an amazing bird. And [00:04:00] Walter and his team are trying to be as proactive as possible to make sure that nothing happens long term that's going to really put this animal in any more danger, I guess is the best way to put it.

, we talk about it in the episode again. But go to lo And you can really read about all of the work that Walter is doing. And there's actually a donate button on this page. And again you'll hear it in the episode, but I wanna also address it now. I'll probably mention it again after we get done after the episode.

But there, Walters is hoping to raise $20,000 to really be able to adequately and to fully staff this project with volunteers other biologists and things like that. And as Walter explains, like this money is just going to, more or less travel and equipment in order to.

Be able to complete this research project, which, for someone who grew up listening to these things on various lakes in Michigan here yeah, it's something that's very important.[00:05:00] So I'm gonna stop, I'm gonna let you guys listen to Walter cuz Walter is just a wealth of knowledge and information as it pertains to the loon.

And it was, for me, it was really enjoyable conversation. I learned a lot throughout this. Hopefully you do too. Hopefully strikes a chord with you and it makes you want to donate because these are the types of projects that really need our help to see them through.

So episode 1 42 with Walter Piper. Enjoy everybody. All right, Walter Piper, welcome to the podcast. Sir, how

Walter Piper: are you? I'm good. I'm good. How are

Marcus Ewing: you? I'm doing well, thanks. I'm glad that we got to chat for a few minutes and talk baseball and things like that. And some some mutual some players that we find a mutual interest in admiration for.

So it's always nice to have kind of that precursor conversation and find a little common ground before actually starting to record here. Yeah, absolutely. Walter, we our friends over at 2% for conservation put us in touch with one another about a project that you've, you're currently working on, you've been working on and one that's in a critical state.

And we thought it would [00:06:00] be a great idea to, to get you on here to share the work that you're doing and hopefully try to help push this project that you've been working on across the finish line. To kick things off here, Walter, tell us a little bit about yourself and then we'll we will get into the project that you're working on as well.

Walter Piper: Okay, great. I'm a professor of biology at Chapman University in Orange, California, and I've been here since 1999. I always say I've been here since the last millennium, just to make it sound like it sound really impressive. . But since 99 and actually even before that, I was studying loons in Wisconsin and started in 1993 in our study area in Wisconsin, in the Rhinelander Minocqua area.

And I'm a, I'm trained as a behavioral ecologist and that is to say I study territorial behavior, aggressive behavior and mostly of birds. And so I was going along merrily along and studying loons and they're wonderful birds and much loved birds in the north country. And [00:07:00] noticed.

Sorry I'm getting off track here, no, you're good already. You're good. But but I noticed in about I guess four or five years ago, it occurred to me when we captured them to mark them each year that the chicks were not as heavy. They were not attaining lar as large mass as they had in previous years.

And so I got to be worried about that. And also it seemed like there were fewer two chick broods. They either have one or two chicks. And so I I thought to myself I better analyze this. Statistically it's I'm not a conservationist by training, but everyone's a conservationist if they have to be.

Absolutely. And loons when you love loons and study them the way I do, you feel like you want to give something back and you don't want lo you don't want your study animal to to disappear. So I did an analysis several analyses three or four years ago and published a paper showing that the loons really are declining.

They're fewer two chicks broods, that they're not, that the chicks really truly don't weigh as much. They're about, they're down by more than 10% if [00:08:00] you adjust for age in terms of their mass. Their reproductive success, by any measure is way down. And their whole up population size has declined by 22% in our study area, which is an alarming number.

That's a big number. It means almost a quarter of all the birds have disappeared and especially the birds in. The floaters, the young adults, before they've ever reached they've settled on territories. Those birds are disappearing. So I just got very worried about them and started to turn my attention to, okay what's going on?

What's the problem? How can we potentially find out why the decline is occurring and how we can fix it? So now there's a very much of a con conservation focus to my work.

Marcus Ewing: So what was it that even made you look at the wound in the first place? Obviously being, a professor of biology, it's.

Without making a, a terrible joke here. It is in your DNA to, see problems or assess situations from a biological standpoint. But, you're at Chapman University, [00:09:00] you're, in Southern California. Yeah. In the loo, predominantly is, and I don't wanna misspeak to, to say, oh, there's loons everywhere.

But, predominantly, in the northern Midwest I'm, here in Michigan, loons are one of those things that I grew up, the very distinct calling sound of a loon, seeing them dive and then, 30 seconds later they pop back up, yeah. 30, 40, 50 yards, down the lake or something like that, it's just, it's a very iconic sound and bird for a lot of us here. So what drew your attention to that in

Walter Piper: the first place? I really, it was similar to your experience, Marcus, in that when I was a child, I, we had a still have a string of rustic cabins way up in Ontario, Canada.

And as, as long as I can remember we heard loons cries echo across the water Yeah. On Lake Toma and we way up there north of North Bay, Ontario, and and like you say, dive at, and then they, they disa vanish under the water. Like where do they come up? Of course, when you're a kid, whoa, let's try to find it.

And it'd come [00:10:00] up 200 yards away and it's just a magical creature. And of course, when you got lucky enough to get close to them they're this just strikingly gorgeous animal as well, and really interesting quirky behaviors that they have. So I got fascinated with 'em at an early age but really if you could pick a bird.

That's, or an animal, I guess that's hard to study that you might not even want to study. It would be a, an aquatic diving bird that's hard to approach closely . And so really they're the worst study animal in some ways to, to study. Except that about 30 years ago, some folks developed a technique for capturing them with efficiently going out in motorboats when they have chicks.

And you can sometimes capture the adults and the chicks. And I got into them actually, I was a postdoc at IU in Indiana University in Bloomington. And when somebody learned I was up in, in in the upper peninsula actually at Whitefish Point Bird Observatory. Okay. In the up studying white throated sparrows.[00:11:00]

When Dave Evers, this fellow who continues to study loons figured out how to. How to catch. He's the one really who improved the technique for catching loons and at night by just you, you're really just spotlighting them at night. But it's a, it's an effective and safe technique. And it's a technique that allows you to catch and mark a lot of birds fairly efficiently.

And it's, marking an animal is a profound thing. Being able to catch and mark an individual cuz then suddenly these animals that were otherwise impossible to tell apart, you can't tell one from the other. Even though they're strikingly plumage, they, you can't tell 'em apart in any way.

So once you get bans, these harmless. Colored plastic leg bands on their legs. You can tell, oh my gosh, that's red over silver, green over yellow. That's the same male that was there last year. He's back, this year. And then you can start to measure things like survival rate and you can, not to mention behaviors territorial behavior to see if they're battling for their territory and all that.

So anyway, to summarize, I got started, I was enchanted by loons. [00:12:00] And I got interested in 'em when I learned about this new technique that came about for catching 'em efficiently. And I thought if we can catch enough of them and start to study their territorial behavior.

Cuz he also noticed Dave Evers also noticed that occasionally they, they evict each other. They kick each other off territories. Okay. And that was really interesting to me as someone who studied territorial behavior. So I signed, got hooked back in 1992 and I told him I made that kind of.

Like I said, the kind of thing you never should say to someone, which is someone should study this , kiss to death Yeah. Jinxing myself to cuz and no one immediately was, had the training and interest to study the behavior, even though it looked like there were some interesting things going on.

And so I started and re reheat he and Mike Meyer with the Wisconsin dnr. He was also studying loons in and marking them in Wisconsin. So I settled in Wisconsin where there was a cluster of studied of loons already marked and began to add to that effort. And that was, 31 years ago.

Marcus Ewing: So what are some of the things that you've [00:13:00] learned over the years about the loon that, you know, prior to you just had, I know you just mentioned the territorial aspect of loons, but what are some things that you learned along the line that just make you really scratch your head or you're just in awe of what you've come across?

Walter Piper: Yeah, there are lots of things that have surprised us. But one of the, maybe the single most surprising thing, and I still can't figure out why it happens, is that we know that loons pair stay close together and work very close together through all aspects of the reproductive effort.

And they pair together, they go out and build their nest together. But what we didn't know we also know, sorry. We also know that they use this rule called the win stay lose switch rule, which means simply if you nest, you put a nest in one part of the lake and that you hatch chicks from that nest, then you reuse that's winning.

And then you stay, you come back the next year and you use that nest again. Okay? And if you lose, that is if a raccoon gets your [00:14:00] eggs, the raccoons are the worst predators. If raccoon gets the eggs, then you move to a new location. Okay, so that's losing and switching wins. Win, stay, win and reuse.

Anite lose and lose your eggs and move to a new location. So loons like many other speed, it's a very intuitive rule, right? They're very like common sense. Yeah. You and I would do the same thing. Yeah. Evolution, right? And and loons do it and, but we didn't know, since the pair worked so closely together, we didn't know which of the two pair members was using that rule or if somehow it was a communication between them.

Cuz if the birds are coming back each year, they're very long live then if they're coming back to the same territory each year, the. Is it the female that's, she's the one laying the eggs? Is she the one that's choosing the nest location that kind of made sense to us? Or is it the male or do they, is there some discussion and they somehow are able to figure out who's been here longer, who knows better?

And we're gonna, I'm gonna defer to you and you've gonna choose the Nest location. To make a long story short, the males for reasons we don't understand, we we learned [00:15:00] about 15 years ago that males choose the Nest location. We know that because when a male vanishes from a territory that was successful the previous year the new male never nests in the same nest location that the male Okay.

You so it's like the new respect male comes in? Yeah. The male, new male comes, he's clueless. He doesn't know what he's doing. And even the, if the female's been there for 20 years, she has to put up with. The ignorance, if that sounds mean, , but the ignorance of the new male cuz and he blunders around and tries to figure out where to nest.

And that's the way, so isn't that, I mean it's such a puzzling thing

Marcus Ewing: behaviorally, but it's, to me it's a very classic male thing

Walter Piper: stumbling around . Yeah. Trying to find out way Yeah. Now that you put that spin on it. Yeah, that's right. The things that that, females have to put up with.

But anyway, that's what, and that, you might think, okay, maybe that's just an interesting oddity, but that turns out to be really pivotal in Lou's territorial behavior. Cuz it means, if you think about it, It means that, oh males, that [00:16:00] territory becomes worth worth a ton to that male. A male particularly has a great value cuz he learns about that territory and he's the only one who knows and can use that information.

And so if as he remains on that territory gets more and more valuable. Tim, him over time. Cuz he starts to know, I can nest here and, oh, sometimes I failed there, but I can move it over here. And so he acu accumulates this information about where to nest and. And that's interesting because males are the ones that, that fight really hard for their territories and often die in the process.

So males, females also fight for their territories and a very occasionally a female will die. But male territory battles that lethal territory battles among males are really common. And we think that's largely because males would suffer tremendously by losing this super valuable territory that they've been learning about year after year and having to go to a new site.

Whereas a female, if you think about it, okay, a female doesn't choose the nest location as long as she's on a [00:17:00] territory with a male who knows where he's going, knows where he's nesting, she's just as good off as well, off as on one territory as another. Okay. So it's a different problem that, that, that females and males face, and it turns out to be really central to understanding why they behave the way they do in these battles.

That the stakes are just so much higher for males.

Marcus Ewing: You, you mentioned something A few minutes ago about the kind of the age the age class of loons. What is like the, I guess if there is an average, but the average life expectancy of a male or a female loon?

Walter Piper: The average for a male, you have to realize a lot of birds die in their first few years but if a male makes it back to the breeding ground the average life expectancy is probably somewhere in the late teens. Oh, wow. For males, we have these data. And 16, 17, 18 years old is probably gonna be about the mean. You never know when you'll. , some accident will strike.

If you're a migratory there's some dangers in migration. There are always tiger sharks out there. And when you're down in Florida, wintering that [00:18:00] can grab you. So you never know when that'll the tiger shark will come with your name on it. But females on the other hand live into their twenties and or more often live into their twenties.

We have both males and females who've lived into their thirties. But females live longer. Males, many males hit the wall at about age 15 and their survival rate declines at age 15. Some males keep going and going but a lot of males hit the wall there, whereas females have a gradual decline.

But they are stairs and survivors. And I guess again, another parallel to humans, I suppose you could say in that females really hang in there well, whereas males tend to hit the wall sooner.

Marcus Ewing: Yeah. And I'm just making a complete assumption here, but it goes back to what you were talking about with female or with the males picking the site location for nests and the female.

In inherently feeling comfortable in there because they know that the male has likely done his due diligence, let's say, right over the course of time. And [00:19:00] using those breeding grounds in those nesting areas. So there's, less stress or less potential harm on the female and if there is, inherent danger in the area or something moves in, some type of predator or anything like that, that the male is the one likely, like you mentioned, that's, trying to defend that ground and that's when you know they could potentially lose their life as well.

Walter Piper: Yeah. Although I gotta say Marcus that it, these are like, these are male battles and female battles. Oh, okay. Okay. So these are the only case when you have a male attack a female or maybe a female attack a male, which would be very rare, is if a female is with her chicks and a male intruder came in, she might try to attack the male.

But but yeah males are larger. They're about 20 to 25% larger, so they do more territory defense. They're also only the ones, they're only ones who can give the territorial call, which is called the yodel. And so males are better equipped to, to defend the territory, and they spend a lot of time defending the chicks.

They give you this yodle a lot to try [00:20:00] to drive and to keep intruders from even landing when the chicks are small, because intruders do kill loo chicks sometimes. Okay. So yeah, males do have a higher responsibility in t in terms of defending the territory. But females, when a, when another female comes in to try to take a female's territory, it's like the male kind of stands back and says, okay, this is you and this is your responsibility.

And vice versa. Females don't help their you might think why don't pairs get together and defend, drive anybody off who come tries to come in? No, the female sits back and lets the males battle and vice versa. Yeah, it's it's very much a female on female or male on male battle.

Okay. When that happens, unless there are chicks and then and that in that case then you get both pair members working together cuz the chicks are so valuable to

Marcus Ewing: them. Yeah. And that was a, that was an interesting fact that you said that. usually there's only one, maybe two chicks in a cycle, which, and maybe it's just, my own ignorance on the topic, but I would've assumed, that you were looking [00:21:00] at, four to five,

Walter Piper: Per Yeah.

People, yeah, people think of 'em as, of course they, they look for similar to ducks, right? But so people think of them as ducks and, think of the ducks, mallard ducks with, 13 ducklings behind and gans that they see up with equal numbers and, huge families.

And that's not the case for loons. We're loons. Again, I guess you could say like humans, we, not many young that we have, and there's a ton of investment in the young that we do have. Chicks or alums stay stay with their young and feed their young for 11 weeks before, for, two and a half months until the young get.

Old enough to be able to feed themselves and able to fly and whatnot. So there's a huge investment in either the one or the two chicks that, that loons produce very different model from what ducklings are doing. Where they're 13 ducklings today and they're 11 tomorrow, and you hope at least a few of them survive.

And loons is like a big deal. You have one or two loon chicks and you defend them to the. Yeah. [00:22:00]

Marcus Ewing: So Walter, in your, I guess your most recent project and the reason that we're able to speak here today, you're studying the decline in like the North Midwest, and you said you've been working on this study for four or five years, is that correct?

Walter Piper: So in Minnesota I I started in, this will be my third year coming up. Okay. We started in 2021 in Minnesota in Wisconsin we began in 93, so we're coming up to year 31. But in Minnesota we are, we're just getting into year three. And in some ways though, even though it is a different state, of course loons don't know, don't know and respect state boundaries, I'm afraid.

And the loons in Minnesota, they. Somewhat different from the ones in Wisconsin. There are some average differences in the lakes and all that. But really we feel like the pressures that the loons are facing in Wisconsin and Minnesota are very similar. There's a lot of recreational [00:23:00] activity up there.

A lot of loons getting caught on fishing lines. There's lead that lead can be a problem, lead poisoning. And a variety of other things. We've more, most recently we've just we just got a paper that we're, that's just been submitted for publication on water clarity. There's been a decline in water clarity in Wisconsin.

And I haven't looked closely at Minnesota yet cuz we're just getting ramped up there. But I suspect there's been also been a decline in water clarity in Minnesota in our, in the study lakes that we're now working there. And water clarity is critical to balloons of course, cuz their visual predators are looking for the fish underwater.

So if the water gets less clear, It means they can't find as many fish for their young and the chicks lose mass. And this paper that we just wrote up shows pretty clearly statistically that there's a strong association between water cla, short term water clarity, essentially water clarity in July and the mass of the chicks.

And in fact, even adult mass is tied somewhat to water clarity less strongly than chicks. But the [00:24:00] chicks are like, in some cases the chicks are living or dying over water clarity. And there's been an overall decline in water clarity in Wisconsin and Minnesota in a way that, sorry, in Wisconsin we presume it's also true in Minnesota.

And so we're very concerned. Cause of course water clarity is a big measure of water quality that everybody cares about. Even if you're not a loo, asphyxia, auto like I am .

Marcus Ewing: So is it, how do I want to ask this? You've been, studying the loons in Wisconsin for, like you said, coming up on 30 years and you're in, or you're in year three or coming up on year three in Minnesota.

What differences are habitat and things like that. Those are, they're all very similar, right? Like you pointed out. What are you seeing in Minnesota that kind of really has you. For Oh, shit, right? What? We gotta


Walter Piper: something happen here. I, yeah.

I'm a kind of a worry ward anyway, and I don't know [00:25:00] and since I've seen things decline in Wisconsin, I'm already on edge and worried about Minnesota, but, . I will say that just in the two years that we have worked, the last two years have been poor reproductive years for the part in Minnesota that we are at now, we're in crowing County in north central Minnesota, a little bit north of our min Wisconsin study area.

If you're looking, latitudinally and but right. Pretty much in the heart of the state and it's the black flies, which are a big problem cuz they're, they're a PS for humans of course, but this is a different species of blackly that only bothers loons. And they really can bother loos severely and cause almost a hundred percent abandonment of may nests in some Oh wow.

In really severe years, which happened three years ago in Wisconsin. And we got just about the same thing in Minnesota. Just just this past year and the year before were both really bad black fly years. And that already makes me think we knew there were black flies in Minnesota, but now we know wow, they are a major [00:26:00] cause of nest failure.

And if you're if you're looking at things from a population level, the loo population level, if black flies are severe, it's like being hit in the mouth early in the year because they cause you, they cause huge rates of abandonment of the first nest. And those first nests are the most important nests.

Those are the most likely to be successful. And therefore, if you have massive abandonment of those first nests, it's never, it's not gonna be a good year. It can't ever bounce back to where even though they try to reest, most pairs will try to reest but many will fail. And so it's just, they just lost that great opportunity.

So the fact that black flies are really bad. And we've also noticed that this last year chick mortality in Minnesota was higher in Minnesota than in 2022 than we've ever seen in Wisconsin in any year. I don't know. It's, again, it's too early to be an absolute to in panic mode.

But I'm very concerned cuz this [00:27:00] suggests that that reproductive Minnesota loos aren't producing as many young as they should be. They're couple of possible reasons for that. It's, there are, there's a higher rate of artificial nesting platforms. People put out these one meter by one.

Squared pvc usually nesting platforms for loons. And those are great cuz they, they allow loons often to hatch eggs and the raccoons can't get to 'em cuz they, they anchor them offshore. So those are great. But now people have put so many of those up in Minnesota that we worry that they are causing loons to nest cuz they're so attractive to loons.

They're causing loons to nest in areas where they wouldn't even think of nesting before because there's no nesting habitat. And that could draw adults into places where there's good nesting habitat on that platform, but where maybe there's too much boat traffic or maybe fish populations aren't high enough to sustain the chick.

So it's possible that's causing and this is [00:28:00] speculative, but it's possible that's causing a disconnect between where the nesting habitat is and where the habitat, good habitat for raising chicks is the safe habitat where there's enough food. So that's, those are a couple of. Couple of concerns that I have in Minnesota that have already got me tossing and turning a little more than than I do ordinarily.

Marcus Ewing: So it's almost like you're, they're that, people are creating these, safe havens for nesting, but due to that, it's almost, it almost has the wounds going against their instincts or their better judgment in terms of finding an area that is, a safe nesting ground, but also has the right habitat around it.

Yeah. To allow the birds to develop when they're young and everything like that with, a healthy fish population and everything like that, because that probably goes back into, what we, what you talked about is, learning, as these males nest in the same area over and over again, they're learning, okay we know that there's good fish here, right?

You, we, we know that it's safe, so it's, you're doing something good, but [00:29:00] almost having a reverse effect. It's in the

Walter Piper: long it's. Now the, it's early days, Marcus. So it's too, that's my, again, that's my WORRYWART sign side. That's, that's coming up with that explanation. But it's possible that that we're putting in in some cases there, we're putting in platforms where where that hatches the chicks and we feel good, good about the chicks that are hatched, but we haven't taken yeah, like you say, a sort of a holistic view to make sure that the ha habitat otherwise is gonna support those chicks and the parents are gonna be able to raise those chicks in a safe place.

Cuz just having a platform out somewhere doesn't mean you got a good place. It doesn't a good, safe place for the chicks to hang out and yeah, people put out flat forms sometimes in very busy areas. Huge boats coming through all the time at speed, and you think, wow, those chicks are gonna be in trouble if the parents, get caught out with their chicks in the wrong location at the wrong time.


Marcus Ewing: yeah. Now these nesting platforms are the, when these are being put into place [00:30:00] and things like that, the. The, whether it's conservation organizations, whether it's just, regular people who, are trying to, do their part so to speak, are they, consulting with, biologists like yourself in order to determine these optimal places for these nesting platforms to go?

Walter Piper: I think that usually happens. I know I, I know Wisconsin better than Minnesota, so we're just learning about Minnesota. But I know that in Wisconsin there are guidelines and you have to get permission to put to put the platform out. So you have to check with the dnr. And I often get asked as a resident loon expert, is this a good, is this a good promising place to put a nesting platform?

Is this a good lake to put a pla, does the information that you have on the breeding success of the loons make it look like they will benefit from the so there's a pretty careful study in Wisconsin. I think in Minnesota, a similar thing happens. In most cases at least, and I certainly also want to say [00:31:00] if, people hear these, people who put out platforms, there are people who year after year put out platforms in Minnesota and Wisconsin, both.

And they put it out, the loons use it. They have chicks, they fledge the chicks, and we know that's a positive for the population. So I do not want to run into this situation of just, casting aspersions on folks who put out platforms, because many, in many times, we know that it boosts the population's success.

But there are some cases where pe people seem to put out platforms that maybe are not in a great location, maybe should objected, or they put two penny too many platforms and put them too close together. Okay. And also, when you put out a platform that's a big deal when there's 28 inches of ice.

On a lake in the winter, you're gonna have to put that platform out. You're gonna have to take it in the fall after the loons have used it. Probably do some maintenance on the platform, take it out in April to make sure it's there when the loons arrive the next spring. So there's a lot of maintenance and and those things are heavy, big, clunky platforms that they have to take out.

[00:32:00] So yeah, when in, in the best case scenario platforms are really a positive for loons and for the overall population. But in some ca and in many cases they are regulated in some cases, it doesn't seem as closely regulated as it, it should be, I think. Okay.

Marcus Ewing: No that's fair.

And it's like you said, you didn't want to cast dispersions and I don't think anyone's, volunteering their time to be malicious with where they're No, they're putting, nesting platforms, but I was, no,

Walter Piper: it comes from a good place. It always comes from a good place. Yeah.

Marcus Ewing: You've been.

studying loons in Wisconsin for, again, close to 30 years. Do you feel like, is that a study that is, just gonna continue for the foreseeable future? Is it gonna, are you gonna get to a point with that where, you have, enough data points where you can then sit down and, spend, however long it takes to do a thorough, analysis of all the information and then make recommendations to, the dnr, the fish and wildlife, whichever department is involved.

And I [00:33:00] guess that's question one. And question two would be the same thing as it pertains to Minnesota. How long does that study need to be before you feel like you can, make some very educated, recommendations for, how to rectify, the situation that we're in?

Walter Piper: Those are good questions and important questions. And my wife asks me those questions sometimes too. Cuz you know, when I leave California in the summertime she stays here. So it's it's a challenge. I've been do doing it for so long, it's become the norm.

But no, they're good questions in Wisconsin. My view in Wisconsin is, this has been a project that's given me so much and I just I do feel like I owe the folks there. I've made so many friends and so many folks have supported me and allowed me to do this research that I need to, now that we've found that something's going wrong, we need to figure out what exactly it is and I need.

To get to the stage where I can make recommendations as you alluded to, [00:34:00] and I don't know what time the time course will be for that. I now we, it looks like water clarity is an issue. It looks like black fly populations are higher now it appears than they've been in, in years past which both seem to be related to rainfall, increased rainfall, and maybe increased temperature as well.

So these and so I think we're at least, I don't know. I need to get to the point where, I've linked if it's water clarity and black fly populations. I've linked those to the decline in the population and conveyed that information to to the DNR and made it known to the public and so that folks in Wisconsin know this is what we have to do if we want to save loans.

And cuz I do think we're gonna be facing that at some point. I think down the road, maybe not too far from now. We have to make but that's at least several more years away before you can nail things down. We have some glimmers of what's going on in terms of water clarity in black flies.

So [00:35:00] that's Wisconsin Minnesota's sort of the other end of the of the spectrum in terms of we're just getting started. But I've said and I strongly believe this is true, and within a couple of years, maybe by 20 24, 20 25, after the 2024 or 2025 field season, we'll be able to put a preliminary population model together that will give us a a number, a lambda.

This is this number that population biologists. And if lamb does one, it means the population's stable. If lamb does one, 1.01, it means the population's going up by 1% each year and so forth. So it can be 0.9 nines going down by 1%. And so you come up and generate an estimate of this scientific estimate of lambda what the population's doing.

And I think in a couple years in Minnesota, we'll know, okay, is the population stable there? Despite these early concerns that I have, maybe I'm wrong, right? I've been wrong a lot and maybe I'm wrong there. And maybe the population's stable and if so few, you know what a relief, maybe even [00:36:00] population's increasing.

It doesn't seem to be, I, that would be hard to believe, but maybe it's going up in which case few again. But if the population's. Anything like what the population seems to be declining in North central Wisconsin, then it, you get to then you get to the point where you're thinking, okay, what do we do?

Then you have to do the same sort of analysis that, that I've begun to do in Wisconsin where you say, okay, is it water clarity? Is it black flies? Is it something else? Is it human recreation in some way? Cuz human recreation is a, is sometimes an issue. We lose some loons to human recreation. Which is fine.

I don't, I don't think it's, I don't think that's likely to be. Making a I don't think that's likely to be caus the decline. I don't know. But but you have to have everything on the table. You need to take an honest look at it and see what's going on. But that's, so that's a couple years away before the time in Minnesota when we say, okay, here's what seems to be the problem.

And now if there, or if there is a problem actually, that, that's the first step is there a problem? And if there's a problem, then then [00:37:00] we go into phase two. Okay, what do, what can we do about it? And of course, the fact that we will have been already, were a little bit ahead in knowing about Wisconsin should be able to be transferable to Minnesota.

A lot of the lessons that we learned in Wisconsin can be transferable to Minnesota so that we can get a good sense from that. To make recommendations to the D n R and local agent conservation agencies and the state and legislators. What do we need to do to protect loons?

In Minnesota? They love loons both places in min, Minnesota. It's the state bird, right? People don't wanna mess around with with losing loons from Minnesota. And the stakes seem even higher there, although people in Wisconsin also love loons. So we're several years away from being able to, to.

What we can, what we need to do in each place. But yeah but having one will help us learn about the other, I think, and that's gonna be a real benefit of having, spent all that time in Wisconsin. Yeah. And that was,

Marcus Ewing: excuse me, that was one of my questions was gonna be, is, what can you apply from [00:38:00] Wisconsin, two Minnesota?

Does that, once you have your lambda your baseline, right? Are a lot of those things going to be transferrable? Can I guess shorten the quote unquote learning curve. Yeah. In terms of, you've spent 30 years in Wisconsin. Yeah. Studying all these activities.

Maybe you can come to the same conclusions in Minnesota, but maybe it takes

Walter Piper: you 12 years, right? Absolutely. Based on lessons learned or even faster. Yeah, it, it depends how similar they are Marcus if they're very similar, it could be that, that really it's the same two things or the same three things or whatever.

Cuz they are very similar to look at 'em the, they're both lots of human recreational activity. Some boating problems that loons have getting killed by boats sometimes. And and led problems in both states. And then, like I said, the black flies and the water clarity is probably similar.

So it may be that exactly the same thing needs to be done in Minnesota as Wisconsin, which case instead of 12 years, it'll be, maybe five years. We do have to get, we do have to get enough population [00:39:00] data in Minnesota to, to know what's going on and be able to say confidently because, we wanna do.

Rigorous science. And for that you need a large sample. You need to follow enough lakes to be able to not say something, off the cuff. You need to say something st with statistical significance. And you need to make sure that you've sent it to peers collab other scientists who agree this is what's going on.

You have the evidence, here's what we need to do and then let's get it.

Marcus Ewing: Yeah, and you've mentioned it a few times, but the lead poisoning I had a gentleman on the podcast who works for the Michigan Wildlife Federation here, and he is a a big advocate and a big proponent for non-lead fishing tackle and non-lead ammunition in your firearms as well, because and maybe I'm late to the game in terms of really having a full understanding of that issue.

But that's one that it's almost like a silent killer because it's hard to, or it may [00:40:00] be hard for individuals to, go out and, they're using, lead ammunition or lead tackle when they're fishing. , they can't see the results. They can't see the result a year down the road or two years down the road.

Especially, like in birds that catch, predatory birds that are catching fish that have lead poisoning and then it's killing the birds. It's just, yeah, it's this slow trickle effect, but it's certainly one that I have seen a lot bigger of an emphasis put on in recent years.

How are you guys able in your studies to, determine these types of things, like how lead poisoning is affecting and, what I guess the totality of

Walter Piper: that effect? Of course we study we study these marked birds that are living on their territories and look at their behavior, but we do lose them to, to lead poisoning.

We have usually it's angling, it's fishing incidents where they swallow a jig or they swallow a sinker and they take it from a fishing line. And but we don't see as much of it as[00:41:00] as the rehabbers do. The folks who are called and and when there's a loon that's in trouble, this is, there's a loon that's acting strangely or there's a loon on shore, or maybe there's just, there's a dead loon.

And but the and so we are beginning to collect. Data more systematically. And we're beginning to look for lead more, do x-rays and look for lead more than than we used to both in. And that's happening both in Wisconsin and in Minnesota. Deep different agencies in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

And I, in many cases, it's rehabbers who are really doing fantastic work, spending a lot of resources to try to save birds that, that have lead poisoning and hoping they can bring 'em back. And occasionally that can happen. Or at least documenting this bird died from lead poisoning. This bird died from lead poisoning this.

So really I don't collect as much information about that, although anytime there's a loon in trouble in real trouble, we'll catch it and quickly take it to, to a rehabber and and try to get some help. And we have a number of rehabbers [00:42:00] who've stepped up in both Wisconsin and Minnesota who will do that.

But it is a big problem. If you think about it, I said, earlier on I talked about how a male loon can be on a territory for 20 years and we've just docked another paper that I've just writing up and I'm about to send off for publication is a paper that, that shows that males continue to increase and increase steadily in their ability to hatch eggs even after 15 years on a territory.

They're still getting a little bit better each year cuz that's, and that's the value of that familiarity they have with a territory. And so think about it, if a male on a territory that's been there for 20 years gets lead poisoning, that all of that knowledge and, information that male had about is lost.

And that territory, the new male that comes in is back to square one. He doesn't know any, doesn't wear to know where to nest. And as from a population standpoint, those males become these super valuable, knowledgeable animals that that produce the crank out the chicks once they get the.

Get the [00:43:00] experience. So that's a case where lead poisoning really can hit 'em hard. And lead poisoning of females is terrible too. It happens that females, there are more females, there's a female biased sex ratio. So there are more females in the population than males in in, in our population in in Wisconsin.

So a female death of a female loon isn't as devastating as a death of a male territory holder. But either way, it's bad. It's something and it's something that we really need to fix because there are substitutes. If there were, if we were putting people out of the fishing business or putting people out of the hunting business with getting rid of lead.

Then that would be a tough call. But really this should be, I know it's a little more expensive, but honestly, aren't the loons worth it? And as you say, it's a tragic situation cuz people don't see the immediate effect it takes, it takes a couple of days for a loon to ingest a lead sinker and then become unable to move and then ultimately die.

And it's a must be a pretty bad way to go too. And yeah, cuz it's not [00:44:00] quick. And yeah that's something that we really, we need to think harder about fixing because in addition, we don't know whether lead poisoning itself is a serious enough problem to hit the population to cause to be contributing to the population decline.

But it's one of those, it's low hanging fruit. Let's fix this. This is easy to fix. We know how to fix it. There are substitutes we, it's not gonna change our lives. Let's do it. Yes. It's a

Marcus Ewing: very tangible change that can be made and you can see an immediate impact. Going back to, trying to bring it full circle a little bit here.

We talked about, the crisis if you wanna call it that, the, that you're experiencing, that you're studying in both Wisconsin and Minnesota and in Minnesota. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong there, Walter, but the funding mechanism that you guys have for the work that you've been doing has taken a bit of a hit Yeah.

Correct. In Minnesota. Yeah. Now our, I guess for quick clarification Funding for, these different research projects and stuff comes in [00:45:00] in all different avenues. Is it different funding mechanisms for Wisconsin and for Minnesota, or is it all pooled together I guess?

Walter Piper: It could be either one.

Thanks for asking about funding, but it could be either one. In years past, we've gotten funding from the National Science Foundation from nsf. And for 14 years out of the 31 that I've studied loons, we've had National Science Foundation funding, but NSF funding is now much more competitive than it used to be.

And it used to be that about 25 to 30% of all the grants. That were submitted were funded, and now it's in the, at least in the programs to which I apply, it's in the single digits. And so it'ss just really hard to get the money. So that's pinched us. And we have applied for funding from National Science Foundation.

There's also been a little bit of a juggling of the programs in a way that made it harder to get funding for long-term funding for animal behavior related programs, like the work that I'm doing. [00:46:00] So that, that made it harder for us because the program kind of closed down in a way that impacted us negatively.

But so I've gotten a lot of funding from National Science Foundation in the past and I'm, and continuing to try to do that. But the reality is with funding rates as low as they are you look for new new sources of funding and fortunately by a variety of means, despite the loss of NSF funding and some other funding that we had in, in Minnesota from another funding source.

We've been able I have a blog that that has a bunch of followers and people love loons, and I talk about loons and talk about the research that, that I do and The, by the way, the blog is, I it's okay to plug. Yeah, no, I was blog I was gonna ask you when you were done. So go ahead

Okay. It's it lo loon Just loon project do org and and it'll show you about the blog and give you an opportunity to sign up if you're interested. And you just get a, you get a emailed the blog post each time I post a blog. And so that [00:47:00] is something that, that I did because I enjoyed it and I thought I wanted to share what I was finding.

And it's, it it's, it provides lots of educational information and it quick look at the early scientific findings before they're actually published so that I can share that with folks as well as sometimes just my thoughts about loons and sometimes there's a personal aspect to being a scientist and struggling to, to study study animals in nature.

And so there's all sorts of things in there, but there's a lot about loons and and people have gravitated towards that blog and when. People heard that there were funding problems. I've gotten a lot of folks to step up and at least they've gotten me to the stage now where in Minnesota there's enough funding for me to put a sort of a skeleton team together to keep tread water, I guess you could say, in, in Minnesota.

So I could keep fu I can head back there and collect data early in the year and to, on, to, to see which marked birds are, have come back to [00:48:00] try to look at, to see if we can say something about nesting in the middle of the year. And then to go late in the year to, to see where, which tear which para Territorial pairs have chicks so that we can capture some of those birds and mark them and continue to expand our population.

So we've got funding to just, just barely enough to get that, to keep the project going. But we really want to get to the next level where we're able to do careful analyses, make frequent observational visits to these territories, about 105 territories in Minnesota, just as we do in Wisconsin.

So that we can get really accurate information about nesting behavior, about the ages of chicks, because that turns out to be critical to our ability to measure the mass of the chicks. We have to adjust for age in order to see whether the mass is declined in Minnesota as it has in Wisconsin.

So without a full flung effort. The full funding. It's it's hard for us to get as high quality data as we like in order to [00:49:00] ask the questions about water clarity and black fly impacts that we would like to. So we're we're stuck at a stage where and we're happy to be at the stage where we are, where this replacement, this funding that we lost a couple of months ago we've gotten a lot of that back and but we're not able to put together a full field team regular field team in Minnesota.

And that, and I, I'm a little. Pretty anxious about that. That's why we're asking for whatever help people feel they can give us. Cuz we'd like to be able to get to the point where we can say, here's how min loons are doing in Minnesota. And then if they're struggling, let's go the next step and see what recommendations we can make for turning things around.


Marcus Ewing: And we glitched there for a second. I don't know if you noticed that or not. Oh yeah. But where, for, and I think the loon you talked about it it's just such this iconic bird, especially in the Midwest and for so many of us, you and I both shared our stories for people who, want to get involved.

For, we have a, I would say a healthy listenership on the podcast. And I think a [00:50:00] lot of 'em are very like-minded when it comes to conservation and to a call to arms, if you will. When we see an issue and we know that we can help contribute To that in some way, shape or form.

So where can people, if they, if they have, $25, if they have $50, whatever the case is, right? Whatever they can contribute, where can people go and, learn more about the is it just at the Loon project where they can just learn more about the work that you're doing, where they can possibly donate or send donations to?

Walter Piper: Yes. Again it's loon project, just loo project all run together. One, one word loon project Do org g. and we have a a lot of information there about what the goals are, what our recent findings have been the about why we study birds, why do, why we study loons, why do we mark loons? What what have we found out over the years?

Who's involved? Who are the people? Who am I, who are the people involved in the project? There's also a publications link, so you can see the publications that we've made over the years. Some of them on [00:51:00] behavior that, that I described some of them on conservation more recently, they're more focused on conservation and there's a donate page as well.

Okay. So there's a sub sub menu on, on loo that that allows folks to, to donate. And we would love it if people would donate in anything they can, and a lot of the donations. So we've got also some of the most valuable ones are if people happen to know others or live or have houses up in in the cross Lake Minnesota area or in the Rhinelander Wisconsin area.

Folks following the blog have allowed us to, sometimes allowed us to stay there even for a short period of time during the summertime. Maybe, before they come up in July, we, if we could stay say sometimes people provide us lodging And so any kind of donation, whether it's a financial or some sort of lodging that folks can provide, could be enormously valuable and could allow us to keep the Minnesota project going, which is again, we're hanging in there with a Minnesota project, but but we could use anything that people could provide.

So I [00:52:00] hope that's the information you needed. Yeah,

Marcus Ewing: absolutely. And I'll be sure once we get the episode all put together to, to highlight loom in the show notes in anywhere where people can access the episode that they'll be able to access the website as well.

Do you have like a dollar amount that you guys are trying or is at this point, is it, Hey any contributions are welcome and they will be put to

good. ,

Walter Piper: well, a any, certainly any contributions are really appreciated and welcomed. I run a pretty lean operation in both places In Win.

That's one of the things I'm proud of is that we go out and we get young students who are interested in wildlife biology, and we see whether, and I've just spoke to one this morning, and to see, she was, she's interested in wild lot biology, getting more field exposure and and this is an intense field project. We cover a lot of ground and we we fan out. We work in solo canoes on our own in order to maximize the amount of coverage we can make. So we really do run a [00:53:00] leann operation. Realistically in order to to cover Minnesota in great detail you, we probably need another 2020 K to do that and, that's a huge number.

And but that's what we've, that's our experience has shown us that we need about, about 35 or 40 K in each state to keep the project going. And and that's. , that's no salary for me. I get paid by Chapman. That's just funding that we gi give to, to give a little stipend to the students.

Sure. Support, travel, support for the students, travel support for me to be able to just go out to the study area, replace broken canoes and paddles and there's overhead, there's, yeah, it's just overhead itself. A little bit of storage cost and it just adds up and that's what it comes to. So we would love if we could get to, to, to 20 k that would allow us to go from the skeleton.

Crew that we will have in Minnesota to a full-blown field effort in Minnesota so that we're really [00:54:00] moving quickly towards knowing what might be causing problems in Minnesota or really assessing the population so that we, so we can tell whether there could be problems or not.

But so yeah, that's our target at the moment. But any, anything people can afford to send would be welcomed And any thoughts or advice or recollections? I love to get emails from people who tell me what, what they've learned about loons or how they've known them and what, how loons have influenced their lives.

So people wanna email W that's just my name, W P I P E R at Chapman, c h a p m a And just tell me, This is what loons mean to me. And maybe if you can afford a donation to help us out, that would be tremendous cuz we want to keep loons around as long as we can. And the idea, honestly, the idea that'd ever be lost from Wisconsin or Minnesota is just, I just can't even fathom that's just a horrifying prospect and I want do what I can during my remaining [00:55:00] years out, out in the field to to make sure that never happens.


Marcus Ewing: I mean that, that's, commendable's not even the right word. The fact that, you're making this your life's work or the, the, for the better part of your professional career. Yeah. Your goal to try to better understand and mitigate a problem that we see out there.

What you mentioned, your target goal of 20,000. I think that y you're right that is certainly a lot of money, but I think it's also one that's very attainable. If we can get this message in front of the right people and in front of the right organizations, I think that, thousand dollars here thou, $500 Absolutely.

Things like that, that can add up very quickly. And I think that the loo especially probably holds a place in people's hearts. It's much further than just the Midwest here. Everyone's got stories, kinda like you talked about. And I think that, stories like this, projects like this they resonate with people and.

Just the thought, like you said, of, this, the decline of, such a, an iconic animal is scary. Yeah. Especially for, you [00:56:00] don't have to be in hunter, a hunter or an angler. You just have to be, someone who spend any amount of time in the outdoors and to gain an appreciation, and not even for loons, maybe it's for other, wildlife that, people have an affinity for that they don't wanna see things go away.

And I think. , with 2%. And, the relationship there that I, I feel very confident that we can, really try to help, put this project in the best possible shape to, to succeed and to give you guys the tools, you and your team, the tools that you need in order to help, push this thing across the finish line, like I said earlier, and.

Make educated and in scientific decisions about what's possibly causing this decline in population and hopefully, help rectify that.

Walter Piper: Yeah I thank you so much for saying that. I strongly agree. I think there are people I mean I used to be one of these people that before I started studying loons, that something about going up to the north woods and.

Inside your cabin at night and hearing looms at night, it's just [00:57:00] magical. And I felt my, my stress and my my pulse pulse rate came down, the stress melted away, gone. And somehow, yeah, it was, it's just such a special experience and to lose that, the threat of losing that is just, it's just obscene to me.

And I do feel like, we're the ones on the ground really collecting the data and learning the information that we will pass on to. To agencies, to local agencies and state agencies and federal agencies if need be, to try to turn things around to try to change policies. Once we have the science, once we have the knowledge, we can go in smart and know where the pressure points are and try to reverse the trend, the negative trend that we see in Wisconsin and that the negative trend that's likely to be there in Minnesota if we find one.

But without that knowledge, we're going in blind. We're flying blind, and. . So I think the money that the people are able to give us is money that, that goes to knowledge and goes more directly to [00:58:00] conservation than than maybe a donation you'd make to some organization that's interested in loons and other animals.

But we're buying a canoe paddle yeah. , with that money. You're part transportation. Yeah. We're able to go to the study area, we're able to hire another person to cover some more lakes in order to increase our sample size, to get better statistical results so that we really know what's going on.

So we feel it strongly when people give to our project. And we think we use that money very e. A lot of bang for the buck, I guess is what I'm saying. Yeah,

Marcus Ewing: absolutely. And yeah, I hate to discourage people from where, or encourage or discourage people on where they spend their money, but, instead of, maybe buying a membership to certain, whatever, right?

That's not even, I shouldn't have said that, but, instead of, buying this, maybe, you spend that 35 bucks or that 50 bucks and you donate it to a good cause that's gonna potentially help slow down or stop the the decline of of a certain animal and.

I [00:59:00] like the fact that while this is, I guess you could call it reactive in some sense, I think we're being, you and your team are being proactive in the approach to try to not let it get to a point where it's these are gonna, land on, a list that we don't want it on here before too long if something isn't done.

So if we can get out ahead of that as best as possible, I think that the work that you and your team are doing are is incredible. And hopefully with this podcast and hopefully with, the work that 2% is doing to try to raise awareness for this as well. That, that we can, the ship, so to speak and get you back to full strength with your team there. And we can really make, you guys can really make I say we Yeah. That you guys can really make a change for this because I

Walter Piper: think it's, we, I think we're all, interested in this. And and yeah I do think there's enough, there's still, most of the loons are still there in Wisconsin.

This is the time that we need to know and we need to learn when the population is still strong enough so that we can turn things around, like you say, we can right the ship. And so if we wise up now and see where the [01:00:00] pressure points are, then we can we can anticipate problems down the road and take steps.

To to stop those pressure points from causing problems for the loon populations.

Marcus Ewing: Yeah, absolutely. All right. For those listening again loon, you can go over there and see all the work that Walter and his team are doing, how you can donate and help give back.

Walter Piper, thank you very much for your time today. I really appreciate it. It's been very eye-opening. It's been great to, to hear about the work that you're doing and hopefully we can do this again soon when, hopefully we've hit this goal and then we can talk about, what's to come over the, the coming years and the research that you and your team plan to do.

Great, Marcus.

Walter Piper: I I can't thank you enough for giving us this exposure and an opportunity to see if people will help out, and it's been great to talk

Marcus Ewing: to you. Yeah, thank you Walter. Take care, and we'll talk soon. Bye-bye. All right, thank you again to Walter for joining me today and talking more about loons.

And again in order to get involved and help donate to the cause, be sure to head over to [01:01:00] loon Again, read about. The work that Walter and his team are doing. And then also whatever you can spare to donate would be greatly appreciated by Walter and the team in order to, really push this research project across the finish line.

So I'd always like to thank 2%. Not only for introducing Walter and I and bringing this to my attention but for their partnership as well. And if you're interested in learning more about 2% for conservation, you can visit their website, fish and, and over there you're gonna see all the certified brands that have committed to conservation that you should support with New Shop.

I also encourage you guys to follow 2% on social media, where it's gonna be only positive conservation driven content landing in your feeds. So again, if you'd like to learn more about 2% for conservation, you can look for them online, on social media Thanks for joining me this week, everyone.

Hope you enjoy the episode and hope you decide to help Walter and their team with their project as well. Until next week, remember, still . Until next week, [01:02:00] stay safe out there. And remember that conservation starts with you.