“Of all the wild creatures which still persist in the land, despite settlement and civilization, the Loon seems best to typify the untamed savagery of the wilderness.”
So wrote Edward Howe Forbush in Game Birds, Wild-Fowl and Shore Birds, 1912. Click below to hear the loon’s haunting tremolo call. (courtesy Wikipedia)
Four common loons, Gavia immer, occupied our lake this summer. Normally laying but two large eggs ranging in color from deep amber to brown to greenish-gray, our loons may have comprised two mated pairs or a mated pair and their adult offspring. Common Loons are reported mainly as a spring and summer bird in the Chignik system. On his list compiled during summers from 1960 – 1963, David Narver reported this species as “uncommon.”
With huge, webbed feet positioned far back on bulky bodies, loons are excellent swimmers but struggle on land. Therefore, they select nesting sites close to the water’s edge, preferably where an abrupt bank allows them to swim undetected below the surface right up to the nest. At reservoirs, where fluctuating water levels may leave nests either inundated with water or too far from it, loons will sometimes take advantage of artificial nesting islands. Their precocious chicks are able to dive just a couple of days after hatching, though the downy balls of animated fluff quickly bob back to the surface where they might hitch a ride on their mother’s back.
Loons are generally quite shy, as was generally the case with this foursome. Perhaps the caution common to this species was always so, or perhaps it is a vestige of the days when the millinery trade prompted hunters to wipe out any loon that wasn’t sufficiently wary. Mostly staying well off shore, on one particularly calm, clear morning as we hiked a few miles up the lake, the group swam toward us from a good distance out. The event made having lugged along several pounds of camera equipment worth the effort.
Loons are frequently seen, though less frequently identified, while in flight. Characterized by as many as 250 wingbeats per minute or more, their flight pattern is much like that of a duck or goose. A stiletto-shaped bill and large feet hanging astern like a rudder – along with the fact that they are most often encountered alone or in pairs rather than in flocks – distinguish them.
While the loons of summer left Chignik Lake back in mid-September, beginning toward the end of that month on nearly a daily basis we have been seeing one and sometimes two of the birds in the photo above. Usually sticking to the safety of open water, this one came close enough to shore for a passible photograph during the flood that hit Chignik Lake in mid-October.
Loons are dedicated fish-eaters and exceptional at their work. It’s reported that a family of four can take as much as a thousand pounds of fish out of a lake in a 15-week period. The above bird came up from dives swallowing its catch (probably sockeye salmon parr) time after time. Although Red-throated Loons are reported to be more common than Common Loons on the lake, based on the above bird’s jagged neck markings, thick bill and the tell-tale white ring around it’s eye, I believe it to be a juvenile Common Loon.
In Walden, Thoreau described the loon’s evocative cry as “…perhaps the wildest sound that is ever heard…” in his native Massachusetts of the mid-1800s. Celebrated in literature, art, popular culture and even on Canadian currency, Common Loons aren’t as common as they used to be. Acid rain, mercury toxicity from coal-burning plants and other sources, lead poisoning from fishing sinkers and hunting ammunition, and increasing scarcity of the isolated, quiet nesting sites they prefer has resulted in their disappearance from some lakes. If you have loons in a lake near you, count yourself fortunate: it likely that the water quality is clean.
The Canadian one-dollar “loonie.” (Wikipedia)
Know as Divers in Europe, the origination of the North American term “Loon” is uncertain. Speculation is that it derives from the bird’s awkward movements on land. These are large birds. With wingspans of up to five feet and a bill-to-tail-feather length of about three feet, they’re roughly the size of a Canada Goose. Except during winters, when they may show up on almost any of North America’s coastal waters, Common Loons are birds of the North. Their breeding range begins just south of the U.S.-Canadian boarder and extends to all but the most northerly parts of Alaska and Canada. Their habitat overlaps with Pacific, Red-throated and, in the west and far north, Yellow-billed loons.
A slender bill, light gray nape and distinctive white lines tracing down the neck mark this as a Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica). This photo was taken a few years in August on a tundra pond near Point Hope, Alaska.
The royalty of the lake. Hopefully our loons have had a safe fall migration and are enjoying an abundance of fish on their winter waters. With luck, they’ll be back on Chignik Lake this spring, ready to raise a new pair of chicks. A common loon tagged in Wisconsin was reported to have reached the ripe old age of at least 25 years, so the loons of Chignik Lake and their offspring could be around for many summers to come.
If you’re lucky enough to encounter loons, observe them from a respectful distance. A bird disrupted from feeding is a hungry bird, an effect multiplied if they have young, are migrating, or trying to fend off the cold. As with so many species around the world, the chief threat to loons is human encroachment and development of the wild habitat which they need in order to successfully nest and thrive. Many states and provinces have loon conservation programs where you can learn more. See for example the Biodiversity Research Institute’s Center for Loon Conservation page or Google “Loon Conservation” in your region.