Everybody knows about the Loon: he is a crazy bird that hangs around northern lakes making weird and foolish noises by the light of the moon. This is true , except for the foolish part: he is really quite an intelligent bird. He is also New England’s oldest feathered resident, and if you get to know him, one of the region’s more fascinating creatures on many more counts than his voice alone.
To start with the voice, however. It is a sound without any precise equal in nature, one doubly treasured in New England, where the loon was heavily hunted and driven north for a number of years but now seems to be making a precarious comeback. The sound of the loon has been described by generations of delighted visitors to the north woods: mournful, mirthful, maniacal, unspeakably lonely, the embodiment of wildness, the soul of solitude. To the early Abnaki Indians it meant the messenger of Glooskap, one of their principal deities, who had given the bird a dog like voice; whenever a loon cried at night on a lonely lake it was to deliver a secret message to his master in the sky.
Gavia immer, the common loon, is an uncommon and endlessly absorbing bird. Not the least intriguing fact about him is that he has been around longer than most birds. Along with this similar looking but unrelated grebe, I discovered that he has plied the northern waters virtually unchanged since long long ago; because of this impressive seniority he is accorded the place of honor in the front of most books on birds.
To last that long, one would suspect, the loon must have evolved some exceptional equipment, and he has. Beneath his gorgeously snappy summer plumage—black and white checkered coat and striped collar and an iridescent greenish-purplish head–he is a big, muscular bird the size of a goose, a powerful machine almost perfectly adapted to water. He certainly lives up to one of his other common names, great northern diver. To catch fish, his main food, as well as an occasional frog or crayfish, he plunges straight down from the surface like a torpedo, wings folded back, propelling himself with rapid thrusts from his paddle-like feet. If a burst of speed is called for, he opens his strong but relatively stubby wings and quite literally flies underwater, grasping the fastest of fish with his long, dagger-like bill. He often stays submerged for a minute at a time and can go as long as three minutes in pursuit of deep-swimming or elusive prey; some birds have been accidentally snared in fishermen’s nets at sea as far down as 180 feet.
Deep diving and powerful swimming are not the loon’s only submarine skills. When disturbed or threatened by man, he can sink out of sight completely, leave only his head and neck exposed or swim along with his bill protruding as a breathing periscope. This ability stems from the fact that the loon is naturally heavy, with unusually solid bones that have few buoyant air spaces in them. When resting on the water he often appears just barely afloat; like a submarine he can rapidly change his buoyancy, blowing ballast by expelling air from his lungs and even pressing out bubbles trapped in his feather to sink to the desired depth. If necessary, he adds further evasive tactics: when a familly of loons is pursued, one parent will swim off in a different direction, uttering cries of warning, flapping, diving, and reappearing to draw attention to himself. Sometimes he will double back on a pursuer, diving under a boat and popping up disconcertingly on the other side.
If the loon is a strong and graceful athlete on water, he is a bumbling oaf on land. His short legs, set far back for swimming, can barely hold him upright, and when surprised ashore he must lurch and stumble toward the water, using his wings and even his beak as props in a headlong scramble for safety. When he does reach his element, he seems to have considerable trouble getting out of it again; he has to flap along the surface, feet going like a treadmill, for as much as a quarter of a mile before his short wings can get his heavy body airborne.
Once aloft, a loon moves with the fastest of birds, often reaching speeds of 60 miles per hour. You can usually tell a loon from other goose-sized objects in the sky by the way he appears to fly hunch backed, drooping at both ends, his downward-curving neck and head pointed rakishly forward and his feet retracted behind. When he is a heavy bomber, crash-landing and sending up a line of spray across the lake until his momentum is slowed.
The loons first land on the northern lakes in early spring as the ice goes out, flying in from the nearby Atlantic, where they have spent the winter fishing and riding out the storms. The mated pairs, like other summer residents, seem hardly able to wait to get back to their favorite vacation spots. The courtship dance that soon ensues is a sight to see: the male rushes about, running almost upright on the water with wings folded and bill open, then sinking down for a moment’s rest before starting over again. The pair builds a nest that is a primitive in its simplicity: a shallow depression near the lakeshore, on an island or atop an abandoned muskrat house, matted perhaps with a few soggy mosses and reeds. By late spring or early summer they are usually two olive-brown, dark-spotted eggs, and both parents take turns sitting on them until they hatch a month later. The downy blackish-brown chicks take to the water within hours of their birth and in less than two weeks are accomplished swimmers and divers. When they have had a chance to fill out a bit, their parents, sometimes accompanied by a pair of visiting loons called in from a nearby cove or lake, hold early-morning foot races across the water, evidently to train and condition the young birds for future take-offs. With wings held out and half opened, family and friends run splashing for several hundred yards, then return to the starting point, repeating the performance over and over again with great zest. When the games are finally called to a halt, the racers mill around sociably in a general babble of noise in which they seem to be congratulating the young and each other as well.
In their migrations back and forth from sea to solitary lakes, loons used to present gunners with big, strong-flying and all-too-tempting targets, and although they were not generally considered as tasty as some game birds, they were heavily shot for “sport.” The loon today is protected by law; the danger is no longer from guns, but from some of the very people who come to share the loon’s solitude. With cottages and motorboats proliferating on more and more lakes, the remaining loons are under constant pressure to move. Occasionally you hear of someone chasing a loon around in a speedboat; I like to think that this kind of idiocy doesn’t happen much. Even so, the noise of outboards on a lake can be enough to discourage nesting, and the waves they create sometimes wash the eggs out of the ground-level nests near shore. Over the long haul, two eggs a year doesn’t leave much margin for error.
Baby Loons will ride on their mothers backs until they are two weeks old.
The Loon Preservation Committee (LPC) was created in 1975 in response to concerns about a dramatically declining loon population and the effects of human activities on loons. Follow their updates on Facebook and their website! Stay informed and help protect this beautiful bird of the Lakes. Thank You! https://www.loon.org
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