Become a Citizen Loon Scientist From Your Backyard

National Loon Center
5 min readApr 12, 2022

By Natasha Bartolotta, Communications and Outreach Coordinator

The National Loon Center began a long-term research study of the Minnesota common loon population in 2021. You too can contribute to loon research by documenting loon sightings in your “backyard” through community science projects. In fact, April is Citizen Science Month! As this time of year is the spring migration of common loons, we’ll focus on the migration project, Journey North. There is also iNaturalist and eBird, which are global databases that you can use on a desktop or mobile device. Let’s learn more about each project below:

Loon Migration: Journey North

Journey North tracks migration and seasonal changes across North America. The common loon study relies on individuals to report their first sightings of loons and the dates of ice-out on lakes. Learn more from Program Coordinator, Nancy Sheehan, about Journey North below:

  1. What is Journey North and how does it work?

“Journey North is a crowdsourced, citizen science program of the University of Wisconsin, Madison Arboretum. Begun in 1993, Journey North has engaged a wide audience across North America in tracking the migration of many different species, including monarch butterflies, six species of hummingbirds, red-winged blackbirds, barn swallows, Baltimore and Bullock’s orioles, American robins and, of course, common loons. Because many of these migratory species travel thousands of miles each year, Journey North needs a crowd to capture the action. From Canada, the U.S., Mexico and beyond, we need your help. Every observation counts. All that is needed is an observant eye and 15 minutes to enter the data online.

Whether you submit observational reports or not, you can watch migration unfold on Journey North’s many migration maps or follow along by reading our weekly news updates.”

Migration map of first sightings of common loons in 2021

2. Why study migration and seasonal changes?

“About 350 (or about 15%) of all bird species in North America are migratory. (eBird) The estimate for insects is about 71 migratory insects. (NWF) Few people are aware of these incredible journeys. Migration stories are amazing stories about survival and resilience and can be truly inspiring to learn about. Beyond these stories being inspirational, it is also imperative to know more about migration. Many migratory birds and insects are in decline. By becoming a volunteer with Journey North, you not only contribute data to migration science, you become a local expert who can tell the migration story to others. You will also become more “in the know” about habitat needs of migratory species. Migratory species need access to food and shelter all along their migration routes — both in the spring and in the fall. By tracking migration, you contribute information that can indicate where habitat is most needed for migratory species. Your observational reports help us all visualize where critical migration corridors link breeding and non-breeding ranges. While our migration tracking and habitat conservation work may be local, our collective impact will be continental.”

3. How do I submit my first sightings of common loons? Can I include loons that are “stopping by”?

“To submit an observational report, you must first set up an account with Journey North. This is an easy, three-step process. Go to our registration page to learn more.

After you have registered, you are ready to submit an observational report. Journey North asks for the date, location, and number of species observed. A photograph can accompany an observational report. Comments are welcome too! With drop down menus and straightforward information fields, report submission is a quick process. You will need to have access to the internet. Go to our sightings page to learn more.

For the Journey North Common Loon Project, we ask you to submit when you observed your first loon in spring (anytime between January and June). We also ask you to enter data on ice-out dates. For Journey North, it’s all about the journey, not only the destination. Please tell us when you see a common loon regardless of whether you report from a destination/breeding lake or at a stop-over waterbody.”

First sightings of common loons as of April 7, 2022

4. What can we learn from comparing year-to-year ice out dates?

“Even though we have learned much about wildlife migration, there is still so much to learn. For example, we are not entirely sure how animals and insects know when and where to migrate, especially if they have never been to their breeding or non-breeding ranges. Another big question is how climate change is impacting migration. For example, common loons need open water to land and take off during spring migration. But are lakes, ponds and other waterbodies “open” when loons need them that open water? Tracking ice-out dates over many years can contribute to understanding the impact of climate change on loon migration, answering this and many other questions.”


Photographing Loons: iNaturalist

iNaturalist is one of the most widely used nature apps out there and tracks biodiversity across the globe. iNaturalist relies on community observers to ID observations of flora and fauna. If you have a photo of a common loon and remember the date, time, and location where you took the picture, then you can upload via your desktop. Or, download the iNaturalist app on your phone to submit observations in real time — the date, time, and location will be automatically recorded.

A unique, though morbid, feature of iNaturalist is that observers can submit photos of living or deceased animals. Photos of deceased animals can help scientists study mortality, especially if there is evidence of how the animal may have died.


Go Looning: eBird

Perhaps for the more advanced user, eBird allows you to submit checklists of the species you see and hear while out birding. We’ll dub looking for loons during your outing “looning.” Although, you will need to record all species of birds you come across to submit a complete checklist. eBird is more advanced as you keep track of the number of each species of bird you see over a certain time period, taking care not to double count birds. You can record your checklist on paper and submit it via your desktop when you return home or do so directly from the eBird app on your phone.

Using the eBird website from your computer gives you access to species and region maps where you can see the distribution of birds across a geographic range or look for birding hotspots.




National Loon Center

The National Loon Center restores and protects loon breeding habitats, enhances responsible recreation, and catalyzes critical loon and freshwater research.