An uncommon bird

It’s hard to deny that the call of the loon is synonymous with adventures in lake country. Whether coming from somewhere far out in the dark expanse of water that falls beyond the halo of orange flickering campfire light or rising up through the mist of early morning, that distinctive wailing mixed with hoots of Minnesota’s state bird sets the audible scene for summer fishing trips.

But beyond being the chosen avian for both the land of 10,000 lakes, and the province of Ontario, the Loon is not only seen frequently by fishermen in their exploits, but also challenges them as to who is the better angler.

The common loon, Gavia immer, is well known for its angling prowess, and is piscivorous, feeding on freshwater fish where it spends its summers in North America, and on saltwater species where it migrates in the winter months along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. On the surface of a lake, the loon has a very polished appearance.

Under the water it is even sleeker as it accelerates like a torpedo to intercept small fishes for a meal. It is not uncommon to see these skilled divers streak by the boat during a fishing trip and cover 50 yards or more in just a matter of seconds in their search for food. It is rare to see them on land, except when nesting, where they exhibit an awkward walk which puts a duck’s waddle to shame.

For the grace it shows while on and streaking through the water, the loon appears equally clumsy when taking off and making its landing. Unlike most birds, the loon’s bones are solid – not hollow, further weighing them down, which is great for diving, but not for flying.

Like an old airplane with too short of a runway, the loon needs every inch of water it can get to take off, and when it lands it skids to a stop until the resistance of its belly is enough to slow it down. Unlike other common water birds, such as mallards, the loon’s feet are set far back on its body, near the tail. Since they wouldn’t be of much use due to this angle, the loon simply tucks them back while landing and lets its body do the braking. Once airborne, however, the loon is as much the missile that it is under the surface and can reach speeds of up to 75 mph when in flight.

Loons do their breeding in the northern tier states of the central and eastern U.S. and throughout Canada in the spring and early summer months, where the female loon lays one to three eggs on grass- and reed-based nests constructed on the water’s edge or on small islands, knolls or cattail beds slightly off shore. These isolated areas help protect the eggs and the young from predators and from being disturbed by non-threatening species, like humans. Both mother and father take turns tending the nest, and may become aggressive toward perceived threats like raccoons and gulls, jabbing at intruders with their powerful necks in an attempt to spear them with their sharp beaks.

The eggs generally hatch 27 to 30 days after laying, and young loons can fly in about 11 weeks. During the times in between, they swim along with their parents as they grow, and can often be seen hitching a ride on their backs. While adult loons, as we see them in summer, show the postcard perfect chessboard of black-and-white back feathering and shiny black-and-white striped neck feathering leading up to their hallmark black head with red eye, in the winter, adult loons lose their luster, and don a more reserved set of mottled buff and gray feathers.

Over the next few weeks, adult loons will prepare to depart our area and head south in September. Loons that summer in the upper Midwest head to the Atlantic coast for the winter months and end up anywhere from the Carolinas to Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico.

The young-of-the-year loons will follow just a couple weeks after their parents to return the following season and, two years or so later at age three or four, start the process all over again, when males establish their territory in spring and court a mate to beget the next generation of these awkward, haunting, nurturing and beautiful birds which set the stage for adventures on the waterin our outdoors.