by Joan Herrmann
Whereiwander…Perhaps it was the yodel or the tremolo, those magical or mystical sounds that first endeared you to the common loon (Gavia immer). I can even remember where I was, when these enchanting sounds, etched themselves into my spirit.
More than 30 years ago I attended a gathering of women at Great Camp Sagamore in the Raquette Lake area. The weekend was called “Women in the Woods” and the coordinators were Dr. Barbara Glaser and Anne LaBastille. For me, it was an opportunity to reconnect with my childhood and to spend time with other women who loved hiking and canoeing. It was also a rediscovering of a misplaced love of the woods and waters of the Adirondack Mountains.
The first morning of this adventure I was up and outside at first light. The smell of balsams and the feel of the morning mist were both magnificent. A fog covered Sagamore Lake and it was just beginning to lift. The silence was suddenly broken by a yodel of a loon, which caused a shiver of delight. With camera in hand, I searched to find that bird I immediately remembered from movies and stories about the Adirondacks. From the shore I searched and then, like an apparition, there it was right in front me. It raised its body upright out of the water and flapped its wings. The beautiful black and white bird stole my heart and I have been a “loony” ever since. I imagine that all of you who love loons have had a similar experience, and probably love their mystical sound.
Over the years, first as a canoeist and, now, for the past fifteen years as a kayaker, I have had numerous encounters with loons. We who live in the Adirondacks are so fortunate to have sighting and photographing opportunities so close to home. Adirondack Lakes are perfect breeding grounds for these beautiful birds. They can be seen as early as late April returning to past nesting areas. Just as soon as the ice leaves the loons return. They may spend time on the open waters of Hinckley Reservoir before flying further north. Loons are monogamous; however they generally don’t begin mating until they are about five years old. I have learned that loons can have a life expectancy of 25 or more years. Recently a banded female loon was found in Michigan wearing a band that aged her at 29 years and ten months old.
The female will lay one to two eggs, which are olive brown/green and sparsely blotched with black or brown spots. The eggs are about three and half inches in length. Both male and female loons will incubate the eggs, but most likely the female will spend more time on the nest. After hatching, and when their sooty colored down has dried in about 24 hours, these buoyant chicks enter the water. Even though they can swim the adults will feed and protect them on their backs. The adults have the ability to deflate the air sacs within their bodies, and sink their bodies into the water surface, allowing the chicks to climb onto their backs. Predators loom above and below the water. Eagles, osprey, mink, snapping turtles, pike, muskies and large-mouth bass are always ready to consume unprotected chicks.
Voracious consumers of fish, it is estimated that adults and two chicks are able to eat about one thousand pounds of fish within the three months that they reside in their Adirondack breeding grounds. In addition to fish they will also consume great quantities of snails, crayfish, leeches and aquatic larvae. They have seven to 12 air sacs within their bodies which are used for more than just breathing. By changing the amount of air within the sacs the loon can adjust its buoyancies. Loons’ bodies are perfect for swimming and diving. They can disappear with barely a ripple on the water’s surface and dive to depths of 200 feet. They are able to slow down their heart and conserve oxygen. Loons catch and can swallow prey underwater. They have no teeth, but the roof of their mouth and tongue has backward pointing projections which allow keeping slippery fish from escaping. Loons are agile in the water and in the air. They have been recorded flying at speeds of 70 miles per hour.
Their striking black and white breeding plumage includes a black head and beak, a vertical striped neck collar, white chest, belly and under wings, and spotted/checkered back and wings, molts into a rather drab grayish brown camouflage for fall and winter. The loon’s stunning red eye of spring and summer darkens to gray in the fall. These colors will suit them as they winter in along the coastal waters, bays and estuaries. The adults migrate weeks before the immature.
The immatures will raft up and eventually migrate before the lakes ice up. All loons need a long runway to take flight. A minimum of 90 feet and up to as much as 1,500 feet may be necessary. They can only safely land and takeoff from water. Occasionally a loon may be fooled into thinking that a wet roadway or parking lot is a river or lake, they then become stranded and need a wildlife rehabilitator or another qualified person to assist them.
The adult loons will molt into their striking spring and summer plumage and return the following year. And we can once more enjoy the sounds and sights of them, while the immatures will not return to the lakes of their birth for at least two years.