In 1903 a naturalist named Frederick Hubel devoted several florid pages to his observations of common loons in Oakland County, a lush assemblage of nearly 400 lakes that had yet to be annexed by the northward sprawl of suburban Detroit. Although he ended his article on a note of rhetorical optimism “who can imagine our beautiful lakes of Oakland County, amid all of their beauty and splendor, without the king of the freshwater swimmers?” - his preceding passages augured a contradictory future:
“While trying to shoot this bird I have known it to dive and come up several hundred yards from the spot of the disappearance. These long distance swims often prove fatal to the bird as it is not uncommon for a fisherman to discover one of them drowned in his nets.”
“On a large lake a few miles from where I took my set [of eggs], a resident of one of the small in that part of the county flushed a Loon from its nest in the center of a rush island. He took the two eggs which the nest contained home with him, and through curiosity placed them under a setting hen. The hen hatched the little Loons, but in a few days they died from lack of proper food, and were mounted by a local taxidermist.”
“There are records of sets [of eggs] from almost every lake of considerable size in this county… Dr. P.E. Moody records six sets taken within the last few years from a small group of lakes in the central part of the county where he stays.”
Over the ensuing decades, the shooting of loons and the collecting of their eggs (oology) waned in response to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1916. At the same time, however, the rapid of development of Oakland County’s shoreline compromised or eradicated vast amounts of loon nesting habitat; in instances where it remained, nesting pairs were frequently faced with escalating magnitudes of human recreation. An amateur photographer named Frank Wilson began a 1928 article (“Hunting Loons With A Camera”) by observing that “this magnificent bird has become relatively scarce in southern Michigan; but here and there a pair still lingers, returning year after year to breed at some small lake that has, as yet, escaped the attention of the metropolitan real estate salesmen.” Fittingly, Wilson was both a chronicler of and a contributor to the decline: his piece focused upon one Oakland County lake where just such a pair still lingered, and where he spent several highly disruptive seasons attempting to photograph the nesting process at close range.
Wilson and his peers kept clicking, and the metropolitan realtors kept selling. In 1952, Bertha Daubendiek the patron saint of Michigan conservation noted a loon pair with offspring on (the aptly-named) Lonesome Lake. Her observation proved to be the last record of successful breeding in Oakland County. Amid the bustle of a rapidly expanding suburbia, Frederick Hubel’s evocation had been answered a mere 49 years after it was rhetorically posed.
Across southern Michigan, the pattern was similar, if less thoroughly documented. The state literature frequently in the form of Audubon’s Jack-Pine Warbler is lightly sprinkled with anecdotal accounts that largely follow a predictable theme: “In recent years the loon seems much less evidenced in these parts…” It was not until the early 1980s, however, that an attempt was made to quantify the level of this regression. The first answer, which suggested that there were only 220 breeding pairs left in the state, was more dire than most anticipations. Although additional surveying in subsequent summers adjusted this estimate upward to 300 pairs, the revision was not sufficient to dissuade the 1987 listing of the common loon as Threatened within Michigan. Nor did the revision broaden the contours of the species’ eroded range across the state: 35 southern counties had been extirpated of nesting loons over the course of eight short decades… one lifetime for us, and perhaps only two for the birds themselves.