A Loon Encounter
The first time it happened, I suppose I chalked it up to luck – being in the right place at the right time. The second time, I was feeling extremely blessed. But by the third day in a row, when a loon swam almost directly up to me in my kayak, I decided that I must have made a new friend. And the feelings were most definitely mutual. For almost every day of that particular week I met the loon out there on the river each morning, when I went out in my boat. It is not at all uncommon for me to be able to paddle-up quite close to the loons in our area but never quite as continuous and predictable as that particular week. Despite being somewhat flattered initially by the personal attention, in reality, I was probably kayaking near a nest and the partner was out entertaining me to keep me at a safe distance from the nesting mother. Nevertheless, it was an amazing week. I never grow tired of close encounters with loons. They are remarkable creatures both by sight and by sound.
I can still remember, as a young child, the first time I heard a loon crying in the distance over the water. I was completely enchanted by the mystical call, and have spent the rest of my life being enthralled over the sounds and sight of a loon. I would have to say that for me, an evening loon concert is a deeply moving and spiritual experience. I am reminded of the words of Job who wrote, “…Where is God my Maker, who gives songs in the night…” (Job 35:10). And there is no better place to experience those songs in the night than here on the River.
Not So Common
Ironically, this amazing creature is referred to as the Common Loon (Gavia Immer) in North America. I'd always found that name ("common") to be a little ridiculous so I was pleased to hear that in Europe, the species is instead known as the Great Northern Loon or the Great Northern Diver. But for the purposes of this article, I’m just going to call it the loon.
Many of us who spend time at the river have seen these strikingly beautiful aquatic birds out on the water. Though they have been confused with the diving cormorants at a distance, they are easily distinguished by their black heads and necks, their black and white spotted backs, a striped ring around their lower neck and their piercing red eyes. They are strikingly beautiful large birds, growing up to three feet in length, and weighing up to 12 pounds.
Loons are agile swimmers but are also superb at fishing, diving underwater for long periods of time to make their catch. They are well equipped for the task having solid bones (unlike other birds) which make them less buoyant and, hence, better at diving. They adeptly propel themselves with their feet and often swallow their prey while still underwater. I recently learned that their ability to maneuver underwater is nothing short of masterful. When its prey changes direction, the loon can perform an immediate flip-and-turn that, as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology put it, “would make Olympic swimmers jealous: they extend one foot laterally, as a pivot brake, and kick with the opposite foot to turn 180 degrees in a fraction of a second.” And once they grab hold of their prey, they are also masterfully designed with rear-pointing spikes, on the roof of their mouth and tongue, to enable them to keep a firm grip on a slippery fish. And they eat a lot of them! It has been estimated that a family of four will eat a half ton of fish in about 15 weeks.
Like many of us other season river rats, loons migrate to the river (and other northern lakes) each spring. Loons on the East Coast migrate from the southern Atlantic Coast ranging from Florida to the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to their excellent swimming abilities, they are also very agile in the air having been clocked at over 70 mph in flight. The one serious challenge for loons is getting from the water to the air. They are able to swim so well because their legs are located far back on their bodies. But this makes it difficult for them to lift-off in flight. In fact, they need anywhere from 30 yards, to a quarter mile, of a watery runway where they can flap their wings and run across the surface of the water to gain enough speed to take-off. No wonder the river is such an ideal location for them.
Loons that migrate across interior North America will find large lakes and rivers to land on (and take back off from) on their way north and south each year. My husband and I live on a small lake just south of Syracuse and see several loons make the stopover there both coming and going (I wonder if that’s where my river loon friend recognized me from). One other down side to having their legs located so far back on their bodies is that loons are extremely awkward when trying to walk. That makes them virtually helpless on dry land. Occasionally a migrating loon will accidentally land on a wet parking lot or small pond mistaking it for a lake. Without the necessary open water needed for takeoff, the loons will be stranded. I’ve read of numerous rescues down by wildlife experts who will come and capture a stranded loon and carry it to a large enough body of water for it to be able to take off and continue its journey.
Loons normally arrive back at the river in April or May. While loons generally mate with the same partner for life, they do not travel together. The male and female will arrive at the river separately but shortly after arriving, they will start to build their nest together. Because of their ineptness on land, they will nest as close to the water as possible often close to a bank with a drop off which allows them to get to the nest from underwater. Needless to say, islands make the perfect location for loons to nest. Nests are made of twigs, marsh grasses, reeds, other dead plants, and mud so they can slip on and off the nest easily and quietly without being seen by predators. They will form the bulky nest into a mound, usually less than two feet in width, and shape the interior to fit its body. Like many of our river aquatic bird species, loons will often reuse the same nest over the next several years just fixing it up each spring rather than building a new one.
The female loon lays anywhere from one to three olive colored eggs with dark spots. Both parents will incubate the eggs over the next month (28-30 days). Once they hatch, the chicks will leave the nest within 24 hours. Though they are already able to swim, they will often be seen riding on their parents’ backs for the first few weeks. The parents will continue to feed them for the first eight weeks or so as they learn to dive and fish for themselves. By about 12 weeks they are able to fly and be independent of their parents.
In the fall, the parents will head south first, leaving the young loons to gather into flocks and make their own journey south a few weeks later. Hence, it is not usual to see multiple loons on the river in late September. The young loons will remain down south for several years. They will start to migrate in their third year but it is not until they are about six years old before they start breeding. The oldest-known loon lived for over 24 years.
Shake A Leg
In my numerous times of hanging out with the loons I have observed several typical behaviors. Loons can occasionally be seen sticking one foot up in the air and waving it. I read that this is most likely a means of cooling themselves off. Another typical loon behavior is to lift their body out of the water, throw their chest forward and flap their wings. This is presumably to preen themselves or to dry their wings after a dive. At other times, a loon will lift its body up and flap its wings as a territorial sign of agitation (probably a good time to paddle a little farther away if you see this).
Another interesting attribute of loons is that they are excellent indicators of water quality since they require extremely clean and clear water with healthy populations of small fish as well as to see their prey underwater.
Of course, of all of the attributes of loons, the one they are probably best known (and loved) for is their beautiful and enchanting call. Actually, the adult loon has four different calls which include the wail, the tremolo, the hoot, and the yodel.
Each call conveys a unique message.
The wail is the enchanting call that loons use to locate other loons. It is comprised of two or three long rising pitches and is often answered by a wail from another loon. They will often call back and forth using the sound to move closer to each other. In people talk, you might say they are asking, “where are you?”
The tremolo is appropriately referred to as the loon laugh. It is used when loons are excited or alarmed. It is also the call they often make in flight over the water, to announce their presence to other loons in the area. If another loon responds with a yodel from the water below, the flying loon will often continue on to another location.
The hoot sounds like its name. It is a soft single-note call used to communicate in close range. Parents will hoot to their chicks or mates might hoot to each other. It lets other loons know where it is, or asks the other loon where it is.
The yodel is a call only used by the males. It is a territorial call which begins with three rising notes that are followed by several quick dipping pitches. Something very interesting about the yodel is that each male has a signature yodel, unique to that bird. I have heard it called a vocal fingerprint because of this uniquely identifying characteristic. Some people can even recognize a specific loon by his yodel. It has also been observed that if a male moves to a different territory, he will change his yodel.
I have spent my entire life being captivated by the calls of the loon. As much as I enjoy all of my kayaking encounters with them, I treasure just sitting on our porch on a hot summer’s eve and enjoying the breathtakingly beautiful loon calls here on the river. And as I sit and listen to their nightly concerts in wonder and awe, I am continually reminded that "By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life" (Psalm 42:8).
I will continue to enjoy the loon songs in the night here at the river.
By Patricia Mondore
Patty Mondore and her husband, Bob, are summer residents of the Thousand Islands. Patty is a published author and a singer/song writer. Her most recent books include River Reflections: A 90-Day Devotional for People Who Love the Water and its sequel, Nature Reflections: A 90-Day Devotional for People Who Love Nature. Her other books include River-Lations: Inspirational stories and photos from the Thousand Islands, A Good Paddling, Proclaim His Praise in the Islands, and Perennial Faith. She and Bob, co-authored Singer Castle, and Singer Castle Revisited published by Arcadia Publishing, and co-produced Dark Island’s “Castle of Mysteries” documentary DVD, in addition to a Thousand Islands music DVD trilogy. Patty is a contributing writer for the Thousand Islands Sun. Her column, "River-Lations", appears in the Vacationer throughout the summer months. The Mondores are online at www.gold-mountain.com.
To learn more, see the Northland College web site. http://www.northland.edu/sigurd-olson-environmental-institute-loon-watch-behavior.htm