GOING LOONY

Susan Vaughan here. A few years ago, my husband and I sold our small sailboat and bought a camp. For the uninitiated, in Maine parlance, a camp is a summer or weekend cottage either in the woods or on a lake. Ours is on a lake not far from home. From the very first weekend we spent there, I’ve been entranced with loons. With their tuxedo plumage, their silent-but-deadly diving, their varied calls, their habits— everything. So you could say I’m the one who’s gone loony.

Although loons may occasionally cruise the entire lake, they have their home territories, so in our cove we’ve had the same pair every summer. Of course, we had to name our loons, so to us they’re Arthur and Bertha. This summer I’ve been glued to the binoculars and the camera because it’s the first summer they’ve had a chick. Yes, a baby we’ve named Rocky.  This is one of my photos, not professional, but you get the idea. Rocky’s coloring is still a soft grayish brown, not unlike his parents’ winter plumage. But notice how Bertha’s tuxedo blends with the rippling water.

Chicks can swim right after hatching, but often rest on the mom’s back. By the time we spotted Rocky, he was swimming strongly… yet very close to his parents.

During these few years, I’ve learned a few things about loons. The loon got its name because of its awkward gait on land. There are five species of loons, but the ones in the northern U.S. and Canada are common loons. Arthur and Bertha and the others are large birds, about three feet in length and four feet of wing span. They could live to the ripe old age of 30.

Loons spend most of their time in the water, for which their bodies are supremely suited. Their legs and feet are set back under the body, providing strong propulsion underwater, the reason they’re ungainly on land. Loon bones are solid to aid them in diving and swimming underwater. A prime male like Arthur could weigh as much as 15 pounds. They’re stealthy, barely rippling the water when they dive after a fish. Using their feet to power them underwater, they’re agile and powerful swimmers that catch fish in speedy underwater chases. They can dive deep and swim great distances in very short amounts of time, and their short wings help them turn as fast as lightning while chasing prey.

When I saw Bertha rolling onto her side with one leg lifted high out of the water, I worried something was wrong. But no, she was just preening and spinning while trying to reach breast and belly feathers.

Experts haven’t been able to translate all loon calls, but there are four types. The tremolo is a wavering call of alarm. The yodel is the male loon’s territorial claim. The wail is the haunting call that loons use to find each other. Hoots are soft, short calls between mates or between parent and chick. You can listen to the individual calls at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site. Bertha and her chick Rocky have hung around in our cove together most of the summer, and Arthur appears, wailing for them, later in the afternoon. By now, late summer, Rocky can feed himself, and he’ll be independent once he can fly, at about 12 weeks.

Generally common loons are not social birds, but they tend to flock up in late fall. On our lake, folks call it rafting up. Arthur and Bertha will accompany a few others to a saltwater bay for the winter. Like airplanes, the heavy-bodied birds need a runway to take off. They flap their wings and run a long way across the surface of the water in order to gain enough speed for liftoff. Rocky and the other juveniles will follow a few weeks later. In spring, once ice is out, they’ll all return to fresh water.

Young loons might not breed for six or seven years, so Rocky has time to play the field, or the pond. Once mated, the pair builds the nest together, grasses just beside the water and between mid-May and mid-June. We never spotted Arthur and Bertha’s nest. Loons always lay two eggs that hatch about 28 days later. Both parents tend and feed the chicks.

Loon chicks are prime prey for predators, eagles and ospreys from above and snapping turtles from below. This may be why our loons have only the one chick.                   Hang in there, Rocky.

I’ve found conflicting information in different sources, so if I have something incorrect, please straighten me out. And if anyone can offer additional tidbits about loons, please share!

About susanvaughan

Susan Vaughan immerses herself in writing romantic suspense novels to escape from the dust bunnies under her furniture and the weeds in her garden. She is a West Virginia native, but she and her husband live in the Mid-Coast area of Maine. A former teacher, she has two nonfiction publications in the field of beginning reading and one young-adult mystery novel. She has written for Harlequin and The Wild Rose Press. Her books have received the Golden Leaf and Laurie awards and been nominated for the Bookseller's Best Award. f Excellence.
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12 Responses to GOING LOONY

  1. Thank you for this post, Susan! I love to see loons on a lake or in an ocean cove, and now know a lot more about them. I’ll be pulling for Rocky, too!

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  2. Gram says:

    That loon yodel goes right through you like fingernails on a chalkboard…I do like the rest of the calls though.
    Thank you for the info and the link.

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  3. Barb Ross says:

    Thank you for this! Like Brenda, I love seeing loons, but didn’t know that much about them. I learned a lot here.

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  4. Susan,

    What a wonderful way to spend the summer!

    Rosemary

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  5. Sennebec says:

    Neat post! We’re really fortunate in Hartland. Here’s what was reported in 2014 by the loon count coordinator for Great Moose Lake: “Our unofficial count is 52 adult loons & 4 chicks!” I think the 2016 count was over 70. The west branch of the Sebasticook river flows out of Great Moose and behind the houses across the road from us and we often hear loons right here in town.

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  6. Marsha R West says:

    Love this post, Susan. I don’t think we have loons down here in Fort Worth, but we do have sea birds and find them all fascinating. Never realized watching the egrets, herons, and variety of ducks would prove to be so entertaining. You have great pictures. Mine never turn out so well. We had one kind of “duck” that swam under the water for a long time before he came up 20 feet away! Amazing. I’ve shared. 🙂

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  7. Marsha, I love watching all those birds too. We have herons and ducks here too. I can’t take credit for most of those pictures. Wish I was that good a photographer.

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