Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Season with the Loons

The mated pair

It is a chilly morning in early June as I make my first visit of the year to the lake. It has been almost a year since I last visited the lake with the pair of loons. The early dawn light and still air accentuate the mists rising above the lake. If the loons are back this year they are well hidden in the fog. As the sun peaks over the horizon it is time to launch the kayak into the lake. As I silently paddle into the lake, two sandhill cranes call as they lift off from nearby and an eagle flies overhead, seemingly oblivious to me. I am unable to stay unnoticed for long as a trumpeter swan honks to announce my presence to all on the lake. Too, the red-winged blackbirds guard their territory among the shoreline reeds with vocal taunts.

Paddling is easy on the still lake, and I begin to peer through the fog for the loons. Their low to the water profile and mannerisms are easy to distinguish, even in the fog, and soon I spot them near the shore. As always, I am careful to keep my distance and to make as little sound as possible.

It is obvious that they have a nest nearby and it seems to be in a swampy area that may offer protection from raccoons and other land-based predators. Even people will have difficulty approaching the nest from the shore, so the loons have chosen their nesting site well. Unlike the previous year when the loons were unable to successfully reproduce, perhaps this year will be better. I tried to memorize the grassy area where the nest appeared to be in order to make sure that I did not get too close and left the loons to their family building endeavors.

Mom and chick in fog

Since last year when I first spotted the loons on the lake, I have learned so much more about loons. Unlike most birds, they are heavy-boned and their legs with webbed feet are well back on their body. Their eyes can focus both in air and water. Even their bright-red eyes help to filter light below water so that they can see their way. This makes them well adapted to swimming and diving, even to depths of 200 feet, in order to capture their diet of fish and other aquatic fauna. Although having their feet further back on their body makes loons well adapted to water, this means that their mobility on land is cumbersome. To minimize their land stay, their nests are usually very close to the shoreline. Being heavy-boned is great for diving, but taking flight requires a long runway.  Therefore, they are usually only found on larger inland lakes.
After several weeks of occasional visits to check on the loon pair, finally the day comes when I spot the loon chick for the first time. The fuzzy chick stays close by both parents and if an eagle happens to fly over the parents corral the chick between them and commence calling very loudly.
If you have never heard a loon call, it is one of the most beautiful series of notes you will ever hear. Only the males yodel and on one particularly foggy morning on the lake the male came up behind me and surprised me with a loud yodel.

Loon dance

As the summer days grow warmer, the young loon continues to grow. Apparently able to swim from birth, it will be 12 weeks until the first flight. Both parents care for their offspring, but it appears that the female stays close by while the male may range about the lake. On the warmer mornings the loons will turn in their sides and fan themselves with their webbed foot, seemingly in an effort to cool themselves.

On some foggy mornings getting clear photos is nearly impossible. But there are days when the loons will come very close to me in my kayak as I stay as still and quiet as possible.
Other times they will preen to stretch or dry their wings, or in a similar move will do a territorial display that means that their space has been encroached upon.

On another day four or five other loons suddenly flew in and landed on the lake. Perhaps the aunts and uncles have come to check the new arrival, although junior remained well hidden among the shore grasses. Meanwhile, the other loons circled my kayak in a boisterous feeding frenzy. I was just awestruck to be surrounded by loons. As quickly as they arrived the other loons flew off and once again the lake was a peaceful oasis for the loon family.

Lily pads

By late July waterlilies on the lake have multiplied and sometimes paddling through the lilies is taxing, but the shapes and sometimes even the colors of the pads and the large white flowers are beautiful.
The middle of the lake is still open and the loons keep to these areas. The flight feathers on the young loon are now replacing the downy feathers and the chick will even make an occasional dive, although it has not shown signs of being a successful angler yet. Regardless, the parents are catching plenty of fish and their offspring eagerly accepts an offered fish.

Preening loon in the mists

Successful catch

On one visit the female leaves the young loon alone near me as if I were a babysitter and swims across the lake. Perhaps the loons have become accustomed to my presence and trust me to be a protector. Soon though she swims back with yet another small fish to feed her offspring.
By this time too the young loon has nearly all flight feathers but it does not match the beautiful bands and stripes on the neck, black and white spotted back and white underbelly feather patterns of the adults. They are truly beautiful and striking birds.

Nearly grown up

By August the summer days are starting to dwindle. The parents will soon be the first to head south to winter along the coasts, inlets and bays along the gulf and Atlantic coasts. The young and immature loons will leave several weeks later and spend the next several years along the coasts before returning to the north country as beautiful adult loons ready to repeat the cycle for a summer season on a northern lake.
Loons do not mate for life, but they do return to the same lakes each year to mate and it will be a welcome sight at the beginning of another summer to again see this truly iconic bird on the lakes of the northwoods.