A bird we see here only during migration is the Common Loon. To some people, the howl of the wolf is the voice of the North Woods, but to me, it’s the call of the loon. If you’ve never heard one before it can be eerie in the late night, but once you know what it is, it’s a wonderful sound. Actually, it’s four different sounds and sometimes they are combined. There’s the wail, the tremolo, the hoot, and the yodel. You might hear one in migration, but to really enjoy their calls you need to spend time “up north.” They remind me of many vacations spent in Northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Northwestern Ontario. They nest in Northern Michigan, also, but they just pass through Northeast Indiana on their way home from the Gulf Coast where they winter. If you spend time in Florida during the winter, you might see one, but not recognize it as a loon. In winter they are dull gray above and white below and spend the entire winter on water.
The calls of the loon are so unusual that you can buy recordings of it. I have an entire album (yes, 33 rpm vinyl!) of loon calls as well as two CDs of classical music interspersed with loon calls. If you’ve never heard a loon, trying finding a recording online. They truly are amazing.
Breeding loons are black and white waterfowl, smaller than a goose but larger than a mallard. The head looks black unless you see it in just the right sunlight and then it has an iridescent green cast. It has a long pointed black bill. On its throat there is a white band with black stripes that is often referred to as the loon’s necklace. The underside is white and the back and wings have a black and white pattern. It’s a very regal looking bird and sits low in the water. It has legs that are located very far back on its body, so it can barely move on land but the position of the legs is ideal for diving. Loons feed on fish, so diving is important to them. According to the Cornell Lab website a pair of adult loons and their two chicks can consume a half-ton of fish over a 15-week period. When they dive they are extremely agile and fast. They may stay underwater several minutes and then pop up on the far side of the lake.
Their nests are built on an isolated shore of a lake or on an island, but always not more than a few feet from water. Loons are very territorial and do not share their nest sites. Because the nests are constructed so close to the water, they are very susceptible to being flooded by boat wakes or waves from high winds. They are also susceptible to raccoons, who will eat the eggs if the adult loons are not present to defend the nest. Once they are hatched, they are still surrounded by dangers: gulls from above and large fish and snapping turtles from below. Most loons have at most two eggs, so survival of the little loons is very important. To stay safe, the babies often ride on the backs of their parents while in the water.
Something that separates loons from other waterfowl is that they need a lot of space to get airborne. They can’t fly from land, only from water, and they “run” across the water for a good distance before they finally get off the lake’s surface. They need anywhere from 30 yards to a quarter of a mile to run before they actually lift off. The difference in lengths is due to variances in the wind speed and direction. If you approach too close to a loon, it won’t fly off like most ducks would, but will dive instead.
In The Loon, Voice of the Wilderness Joan Dunning states that the loons are the oldest bird in North America and one of the oldest bird species in the world. They have been around for 60 million years! They are threatened now by human encroachment in their nesting areas and by acid rain, which may make a lake once used by loons to be uninhabitable by fish, which means uninhabitable for loons, also. Oil spills in the ocean where they winter is also a danger they face. As wilderness areas dwindle, so do the fortunes of the loons.
This and the memories I have of summers in the north country are what make loons so special to me. Keep watching for them on our local lakes this spring.