Article for January - February 2006
For Wildlife Watchers: Common loon
by Rob Simbeck
Photo by Bill Price
Near Northern lakes, the call of the loon is what the call of the whippoorwill is in the South—a primal connection to what this continent was before Homo sapiens arrived. In fact, those sounds echo through the ages to a time millions of years past. The loon’s direct ancestors go back to the time of the dinosaurs, and the loon itself has been here for 10 million years. It is, quite simply, a strikingly beautiful throwback to the world that preceded us.
It is striking in every way, in breeding plumage. That glowing ruby eye amid the black feathers of the head, the geometric interplay of black and white striping and checkered back, and the thick bill that tapers like a dagger are all stunning features. It shouldn’t be surprising that it is the national bird of Canada, depicted on the Canadian one-dollar coin, known as the “loonie.” It is also the state bird of Minnesota.
Description: Up to three feet in length with a 5-foot wingspan. Striking black and white patterns of feathers, red eyes.
Habitat and Range: In summer, Northern lakes from Aleutians to California, across Canada and northern U.S. to Iceland. In winter, coastal bays to the Gulf Coast.
Reproduction: Nests at the edge of ponds and lakes in northern U.S. and Canada. Just two to three eggs. Incubation for 29 days, fledgling phase 2 to 3 months.
Viewing Tips: “They can be seen almost anywhere in the state in proper habitat,” according to Lex Glover of the DNR, “but one of the best places is Huntington Beach State Park, particularly from the rock jetty at the north end of the park.”
For all their association with the northern U.S. and Canada, though, “yearly, they are probably here for a longer period of time overall,” according to Lex Glover, wildlife technician with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. “I have seen them from September through May. Most of the time they are in basic (winter) plumage, but I have also seen them in alternate (breeding) plumage, especially late fall/early winter and late spring.” That winter plumage, which is what we see in South Carolina most often, is much more sedate—greyish crown and back, and white throat and breast.
Every bit as striking as the breeding plumage is the bird’s call, which once again we hear less in the South, although, Glover says, “They can be quite vocal while they are down here, especially in the spring.” There are few sounds in nature to match it. John Muir called it “one of the wildest and most striking of all the wilderness sounds, a strange, sad, mournful, unearthly cry, half laughing, half wailing.” Peterson cited its “falsetto wails, weird yodeling,” and “maniacal quavering laughter.” Glover says, “Once you have heard it, you will never forget it.”
The loon is a big bird, up to three feet in length, weighing six to eight pounds, with a wingspan of up to five feet. It looks like it could be one of the many ducks that inhabit our waterways, but it is not. It is, in fact, unrelated to them, with the four species of loon forming their own genus, family and order.
The name loon is thought to have come from a Scandinavian word denoting a lame or clumsy person, a natural to apply to a bird whose staggering gate indicates that it is simply no longer at home on the land. Their earliest fossils go back 65 million years.
In Europe, they are simply called divers, an apt name, for they are swift and graceful in the water, propelled by legs that sit well back on their squat frames. They can stay under for several minutes, concentrating extraordinary amounts of oxygen in their muscles, and their eyes focus as well under water as in the air. They eat primarily fish as well as shellfish, frogs and insects.
Their bones are solid rather than hollow like most other birds’ bones, giving them an advantage under water but making it much more difficult to take off, something they accomplish with manic runs across the top of the water. They are strong and rapid flyers, but landing is a study in barely controlled crashing.
If the loon remains a primal connection to the past, it is also a disappearing one. Like the whippoorwill, it is being driven out by development and other interaction with people. The least disturbance of the water near which they nest—disturbances easily provided by the wakes of passing motorboats—can disrupt nesting and destroy a season’s reproduction. Toxins and nets are both problems, as well. Loons are susceptible to death from oil spills, and such deaths make the news every few years in South Carolina.
While other waterfowl, like ducks, begin to breed when they are just a year or so old and lay as many as a dozen eggs per season, loons don’t begin breeding until they are three years old and lay just two or three large, elongated brown eggs.
Loons establish territories of from sixty to two hundred acres, which they defend with displays and vocalizations. The nest is a mound of plant material two feet in diameter, close enough to the water to hold down the approaches of predators like raccoons and to allow quick escape. They prefer islands in lakes or large ponds. Adult loons have few predators, but a number of larger birds and mammals, as well as snapping turtles and large fish, may eat loon eggs and chicks. Both sexes incubate for about twenty-nine days beginning after the first egg is laid.
The young are covered with stiff black down, and they can eat small whole fishes almost at once, rather than the regurgitant that many hatchlings are fed. They can dive in just a day or two and go into the water with their parents often after that, returning to the nest only rarely, especially in time of danger. They may ride on their parents’ backs early on. The fledgling phase lasts two to three months, and they can fly at two or three months.
Loons leave their breeding grounds beginning in September, migrating by day singly or in flocks of up to fifteen and overnighting in flocks of up to several hundred. They winter all along the Atlantic coast, and there is a healthy population in South Carolina. They can be found throughout the state where the habitat is right. “Large numbers can be found inland throughout the state on large lakes,” says Glover. Birds found inland are generally common loons and not red-throated loons, which also winter in South Carolina. Although in general terms loons are not at their prettiest or most vocal when we see them in South Carolina, we are fortunate to share in the life cycle of one of the continent’s most ancient and beautiful species.
Rob Simbeck is an award-winning free-lance writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.