Susan Vaughan here. I posted this last summer, but at Maine lakes, loons and their chicks are out and about, so I thought it a good time to revisit the subject.
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 last summer was the first they’d had a chick, a baby we named Rocky. This is one of my photos, not professional, but you get the idea. Rocky’s coloring as a small chick was 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 had only the one chick. However, Rocky grew and matured through the summer and fall. He still had his brown coat and would until the next summer.
While boating around the lake this summer, we’ve seen loons with one or two chicks, which is great, but…we haven’t seen Arthur and Bertha with a new chick. Yet.
And Rocky? We may never know how he’s faring.
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!