Where Loons Hide and RCF Seeks: Wyoming’s Wind River Range

By: Arcata Leavitt and Lily Bailey

The Wind River Range (WRR) is a scenic, 100-mile-long mountain range that includes the highest point in Wyoming, Gannett Peak (13,804’), and 19 of the next 20 highest peaks in Wyoming. This expansive range includes part of the Wind River Indian Reservation, Bridger-Teton National Forest, Shoshone National Forest, and three designated wilderness areas. Among this vast expanse with 500+ named lakes you may find something unexpected: Common Loons, the rarest breeding bird species in Wyoming.

The loon project first documented a territorial loon pair in 2016, and although it dissolved the next year, we have observed unpaired adults throughout the range almost every year since.  Monitoring this rugged landscape for loons presents many challenges. At 2,800 square miles, the Wind River Range is huge, with many loon-appropriate lakes at high elevations deep in the backcountry, far from established trails. To overcome these challenges, we typically survey the range by air, using high-powered binoculars and DSLR cameras to identify birds on lakes and look for loons. With an experienced local pilot, we can check 25+ lakes in a few hours, a task that would take us weeks on the ground. Once we identify loons from the air, we plan a ground survey within the next week to confirm and observe their presence and track any movements or presence of loons on neighboring lakes.

In late June of 2019, we discovered the second-ever documented territorial loon pair in the WRR during an aerial survey. The birds were on a lake in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, so the next week we paid them a visit on foot. To reach the lake from the closest trailhead is about 7.5 miles one-way, with 2000’ of elevation gain. We sent our fittest technicians to do this as a daytrip. Just as they veered off the trail toward the lake, they heard the distinctive call of nearby loons. The birds were calling in reaction to a bald eagle in the area and their aggressive response allowed the technicians to confirm the presence of two loons exhibiting paired territorial behavior. A second ground survey in July allowed us to observe their behavior more fully and allowed us to scout nearby lakes for loons. Finally, we saw the birds again during a survey flight in August, thus confirming them as the second-ever recorded territorial pair in the Wind River Range. They are the southernmost pair in the western US and their territory sits at 9,457’ elevation. This is the highest elevation territorial loon pair in the GYE population and may be a record in North America.

Even luckier for us—the pair returned in 2020. We are excited (and getting our hiking legs ready!) to see what this pair does in 2021. Plus, in a recent review of historic data, we discovered a compelling tidbit that will inform some future survey efforts! Stay tuned for more…

Map of Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem courtesy of Yellowstone National Park, with Wind River Range highlighted in red by RCF.

Wind River Range photographed during aerial survey.

RCF team hiking to conduct ground survey and observe loon behavior.

RCF technicians taking preliminary look at a possible lake territory.

Common Wind River Range lake habitat.