Walker Lake Interpretive Association

Loons of Walker Lake

Common Loon 003

Where are the Loons of Walker Lake

by Bonnie Rannald

   One of the most thrilling sights that I have seen at Walker Lake, Nevada is catching a glimpse of the black headed, dagger billed, white-checkered loon before it dives under the surface of the sparkling blue lake. Until just a few years ago, loons were easy to spot on the 38,000-acre high desert natural lake, as they stopped over during their summer migration north to feast on the chub and smaller fish on that were once so plentiful.



Walker Lake is fed primarily by the Walker River, which originates from the Sierras. It once was home to a native people, the Agai Dicutta, or trout eaters, who received sustenance from the variety of plants, wildlife and fish that thrived at the lake. Formerly known as Agai Pah, or Trout Lake, the prehistoric remnant of Lake Lahontan was home to the Lahontan cutthroat trout, which was known to reach 40 pounds in size. Other varieties of fish that thrived in the pristine waters were the Tui chub and Tahoe suckers. These smaller fish attracted large numbers of aquatic birds including common loons, American white pelicans, grebes, and gulls.


Life was good and food was plentiful at Walker Lake before the settlers began to arrive. However, during the past century, according to the USGS the lake level has dropped approximately 140 feet from its recorded 4083-foot level in 1882. The factors contributing to a drop of this severity include up-stream diversion for agricultural irrigation, severe drought and evaporation from the hot desert sun. Restricting the flow of water replenishing the lake allows the salinity level to increase as dissolved salts enter the lake from surface water or ground water and even the atmosphere. When the salt level reaches a critical level, a fresh water lake will no longer be able to support its ecosystem—as with what is happening at Walker Lake. Presently, the larger adult fish are still managing to survive in the salinity of Walker Lake, but the smaller fish and eggs are not as unfortunate.


It has been theorized by various conservation groups that the decrease in loons visiting the lake is a direct result of increased salinity, depriving the migratory birds of the small fish needed for their diets. In a statement issued by Nevada Department of Wildlife biologist, Larry Neel, about whether the decline in the water level at Walker Lake had harmed these birds, he stated that it was hard to tell if there had been a measurable impact, because their populations fluctuate a lot.



For millions of years the common loon has symbolized the call or lore of the wild. And as with the water of Walker Lake, the common loon population has also reached a decline in the 1800’s with the settlement in the northern part of the United States. Loons need the solitude of an undisturbed, quiet lake. Urbanization and increased access to watercraft have negatively affected the reproductive success of mating and nesting. A loon can be easily disturbed and become stressed, which may cause it to abandon the nest if approached to closely by humans or boats and their wakes.



Environmental pollution has also played a significant role in the decline of the loon. Acid rain has sterilized many lakes by stripping the plants of essential nutrients that are ingested by the loons. Additionally, it can interfere with the growth of plants, making them weak, fragile and inferior for nest building. Mercury contamination, a by-product from the burning of fossil fuels is ingested through the food chain, and affects the loon’s reproductive potential where they spend less time on the nest, producing less fledged young. Furthermore, long-term studies conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society and BioDiversity Research Institute reveal that mercury consumption in adult loons will cause the flight feathers to grow to an uneven size where it takes more energy to fly. Research on the effects of mercury in the common loon, since it is high on the food chain and has a long life span, can possibly be used as an indicator of how it affects humans.


Other factors that have contributed to lowering the population of common loons are lead poisoning caused from the ingestion of lead fishing tackle; oil spills; botulism outbreaks; harassment by humans; and aggression toward other loons, including its offspring, which is theorized to be caused from reduced breeding grounds and insufficient food supply.


Programs have been implemented through the Northeastern states, Washington and Canada to monitor, manage and provide public education with the long-term goal of ensuring the health and safety of the common loon, so that it remains an icon of the North American wilderness. The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources is one good example of the effectiveness of these programs where lead fishing sinkers are being exchanged for a non-lead sample.

In 2002, U.S. Senator Harry Reid sponsored a bill to allocate $200 million to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation “to provide water to at-risk natural terminal lakes”. This bill was passed by Congress. In 2005 an additional $70 million was designated for the Walker River Project, a comprehensive scientific and economic study of the Walker River basin and its water use.


Will there be a return of the loons to Walker Lake, where once as many as 1000 birds reportedly visited? Only the future will tell. In the meantime, I will continue to scope the azure water with my Nikon 500mm lens, hoping to again frame in my viewfinder the white on black outline of a common loon.

Walker Lake Loon 1

 Photos and text by Bonnie Rannald

The Walker Lake Interpretive Association would like
 to thank Bonnie Rannald for this informative article.

Walker Lake Interpretive Association is a Non-Profit Organization Incorporated in the State of Nevada.
WLIA is a registered 501 C3 non-profit organization with the United States Internal Revenue Service.

Your donations are tax deductible.

Walker Lake Interpretive Association
Phone: (775) 945-9088
Photography by Bonnie Rannald, all rights reserved
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