For most of us the common loon, a large duck-like bird inhabiting clear northern lakes, is extremely uncommon in the United States. Its natural breeding territory includes Canada from the Arctic Ocean south to the northern edges of bordering states Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York and New England. Each year during migration, solitary loons are seen on Chautauqua Lake and Lake Erie.
The common loon has a pure white breast and belly, a black back checkered with white patches, a black blue-green iridescent head, a white-striped necklace and collar, and a bright-red eye creating a handsome appearance.
When loon chicks ride on their parents' back for protection and warmth, this appears as human parental affection. The loon is famous for its characteristic wail, yodel, and tremolo calls often made at dusk and dawn. The sound described as haunting, beautiful and unforgettable can be heard a mile away. Within the last 12 months, I have been fortunate to see and hear loons calling on Lake Loughborough just north of Kingston, Ontario, Canada, on Squam Lake in New Hampshire and in mid July this year on Fish Creek Pond campground in the Adirondacks Mountains in New York.
This image of an adult common loon with two chicks on Lake Loughborough in Canada near the Thousands Islands in the St Lawrence River was taken on June 15.
Photo by Robert M. Ungerer
The common loon is thought to prefer breeding on isolated Canadian lakes, but where I observed them power boats lightly peppered the lake, indicating the loon's adaptability to man's recreational pursuits.
Since 1987, the common loon image adorns one side of the Canadian $1 coin, while Queen Elizabeth decorates the other side. The monetary unit is now called the loonie, so where is the respect for the Queen? In keeping with the loonie, the $2 coin is called the "toonie."
The loon diet consists of fish caught diving but also crayfish, leeches, and pond vegetation. The author Kip Taylor, while studying loons on Adirondack lakes, found the average loon dive lasted 90 seconds before diving loons submerge their heads to look for fish and predators. Rough backward pointing bristles on the tongue and roof of the mouth hold prey. Even with the eye on the side of the head, the eye socket can be rotated forward to visualize fleeting fish. Webbed feet set near the tail propel the loon up to 15 mph underwater, but make it clumsy and unable to take flight from land.
To become airborne, the loon - four times heavier than the average duck - must run on water, sometimes for 50 yards, flapping its wings to achieve enough speed to lift off. The female usually lays two eggs on a nest of pond weeds. After one month of incubation, chicks emerge, covered by down, swim several hours later, and fly by 12 weeks of age. Migration is to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and southern lakes.
The name "loon," thought to be derived from lumme or lummox, means clumsy, which describes its movement on land. When a person is described as "loony," this refers to the second dictionary, meaning "lunatic or insane."
Conservation efforts to protect loons on New Hampshire lakes are performed by "loon rangers," who patrol lakes to educate the public about protecting adult and baby loons from boaters. Baby loons are targets for natural predators such as gulls, snapping turtles, raccoons, crows and pike. Coal-burning power stations in the Midwest and Western New York release mercury particles which settle in Adirondack lakes, where they are consumed up the food chain to fish consumed by loons, thus disturbing the loon reproduction system. Carbon dioxide, another coal burning by-product, creates acid rain known to reduce fish populations by disturbing pond ecology.
Last summer while fishing for pike in Canada, I watched a ringed-billed gull swoop toward a swimming loon carrying a 6-inch fish to its mate and chick 40 yards away. Unexpectedly, the loon dove, resurfacing 20 yards closer to its mate, fish still in its bill. Twice more the gull attacked, but the loon escaped, eventually passing the fish to its mate.
I wish everyone could hear and be mesmerized by the calls of this dignified bird, the common loon.