Oringinally published on www.critters360.com
Loons are a fascinating bird, and a symbol ot the North Country whether in New York, Maine, or Minnesota.
My interest in the loon was piqued by another passion, short wave radio. I recall in the late 1960s and early 1970s listenening to Earle Fischer and his “Listener’s Mailbag” show on CBC International Service. There was a weekly feature on birds of Canada, many recorded in Algonquin Park. This included songs of the loon. Listening to these calls then, and subsequently for many years in the Adirondack Mountains, it is easy to see how “crazy as a loon” originated.
Much of the information here may apply to any of the five species of the Family Gavidae. In the spring of 1983, the author observed a red throated loon (Gavia stellata) on Pine Lake in Lewis County. However, information here mostly concerns the common loon (Gavva immer), hereafter referred to just as loons. Most observations have been in New York State, but also Maine, Quebec and New Brunswick.
The loon is one of the most primitive birds, and uniquely equipped for swimming and diving. With legs very far back on the body, it can not walk. However it is a superb swimmer, on the surface and especially underwater.
Loons are larger than most ducks, about 28 to 36 inches. They are usually seen swimming alone or in pairs on the surface of remote northern lakes. With the young in late summer, there may be three birds, very rarely four or more. A common mistake for beginners is seeing a family of loons with six to ten birds. These are much more likely mallards, wood ducks, or mergansers, as one would rarely see loons in that number in the north.
The loon ranges across the Canadian – US border, though its southern range is not so extensive as it was 50 years ago. In the US it is largely restricted to Northern New York, Northern New England. Formerly, it ranged into much of the Ohio Valley and Southern New England. Much of this loss is due to development of previously remote lakes and habitat destruction. Loons are very susceptible as well to lead, mercury, and declines in prey due to acid rain.
Nesting and Young of the Common Loon
Loons mate for life, with pair bonds lasting 10 to 20 years. The loons spend their summers and breed on northern mountain lakes straddling the Canadian border. The lakes of northern Minnesota, the Adirondacks of New York, and northern New England are all home to the loon. Most of them winter at the sea coast. From New York and New England, they migrate to the Atlantic, while from the central US, to the Gulf Coast.
They usually return to the same lake to breed, and usually have one young, occasionally two. Their nest is usually on islands of mountain lakes, or on remote, undeveloped wooded shore lines. Quite often their nest is on abandoned muskrat mounds, and almost always within a few feet of the shoreline. To move from the nest to water they either slide on their belly, or waddle very awkwardly using wings and feet to propel themselves forward.
Loons are very secretive and require pristine environments and their presence is usually a sign of pretty good natural conditions. On large lakes where boating and skiing is allowed, they require undeveloped shore for nesting. In many of these lakes, there may be markers warning boaters and canoeists to go very slowly as heavy wakes could flood their low lying nests. Motor boats in particular could cause them to abandon their nest, leaving it open to raccoons, weasels, or other predators of their eggs. The most critical period for protection is mid May to 4th of July. Boaters on mountain lakes should be sensitive to this and avoid areas that may be posted with floating markers in some lakes.
After the young is born, it may ride on its mother’s back for a few days, then be seen floating in the water. They may be about 1/2 adult size, to nearly full grown by fall. The coloration is generally like that of an adult in winter plumage.The back and head is a grayish brown, merging gradually into a white throat and breast visible when swimming on the surface. The adult in breeding or summer plumage has a dark head with an occasionally metallic green cast, and a checkered black and white back. There is a broken band of black and white stripes on the neck, then a solid black band just above the white chest. The eye is a brilliant ruby red, often visible with binoculars.
Swimming and Flying Habits
Loons are most commonly seen on the surface, lying low in the water. They often dive by just sinking unobtrusively, leaving only the slightest ripple if any at all. They can stay under water for up to a minute or more, and may resurface several dozen yards away from where last seen. Quite often, their head will enter the water while on the surface, visually hunting for prey. The two or sometimes three birds in a group will maintain contact with one short clear high pitched “hoo.”
Loons have a wing span of 50 to 58 inches with rather narrow wings. Unlike most ducks who just “lift off” for flight, they need to skate or skitter across the surface of the lake for 20 yards, or often much more, to build up enough momentum for flight. This is somewhat similar to the dancing of some grebes in the west. Then they very gradually climb, meaning they have to fly in a corkscrew pattern to gain enough height to clear the trees that enclose the mountain lake. They may circle the lake in one to three revolutions. If one sees the bird take off, it often is possible to follow this path and see the bird at fairly close range as it flies by your section of shore. As it flies close by, its wings give off a distinctive whistling noise.
In the fall the author has seen adults trying to teach the young how to fly, with limited success in the lesson observed. The adult showed the young how to take off twice, but the young was unable to attain flight on three attempts. As this was in late September, there was still perhaps another month or six weeks to learn the lesson, otherwise risk the threat of being frozen in.
Loons eat mostly fish, but also frogs and aquatic insects. Smaller prey may be eaten underwater, while larger prey would usually be brought to the surface. The author has observed in September an adult and young hunting together. The adult attempted to pass off from its bill to the young a rather active frog. The young promptly dropped the frog, and the adult had to dive to retrieve it. A second hand off to the young was more successful.
These are perhaps a most memorable part of observing loons. There are at least 4 major distinct calls. The first is the one note “hoo” mentioned above. This is used to keep in contact with the young or mate of the adult.
The second call is commonly referred to as a wail. It is clear tones rising in pitch like a musical arpeggio, at intervals of a third, fourth or fifth. It tends to linger on the highest pitched note, then fall back to the lower pitch. This could include two or three pitches most commonly, though sometimes four or five notes.
A third call is a distress call, sometimes called a yodel. This starts out like the second call, but then raises in pitch and has an “eee-ooo-eee” aspect to it. The “eee” being about a third higher than “ooo,” The pattern could repeat several times in clusters of three, thus “eee-ooo-eee, eee-ooo-eee, eee-ooo-eee, eee-ooo-eee.” Then there might be a pause of a few seconds and the call could be repeated. This call is sometimes repeated several times with short breaks between.
The fourth call is a laughing yodel, very difficult to describe. It is a wavering song on two or three notes at close intervals, and could be heard for a few seconds, or sometimes much longer, to 30 seconds or more. Usually this would be shortly after take off as the loon is circling the lake.
Some of the indigenous peoples thought the call of the loon to be perhaps evil, or an omen of death. It is indeed a haunting call. Once heard it is not forgotten, and easily recognized when heard again. If one camps in remote North Woods or mountains, the trip is almost incomplete without hearing the call of the loon. It is an iconic symbol ot the North Country.
Peterson, Roger Tory. A Field Guide to the Birds, 1980. (Eastern North America)
Pearson, T. Gilbert, Editor. Birds of America, 1936, Doubleday & Company.
Alsop, Fred J. III. Smithsonian Handbooks: Birds of North America, New York: DK Publishing, 2001.
A Day in Algonquin Park, non commercial recording on cassette tape.
Eastman, Whitney and Karen, et. al. The Treasury of Birds, 1972. ISBN 7064 0013 5
E. Thomas Gilliard. Living Birds of the World, Double Day & Company, Inc., 1958.
Understanding Loons – Cyber Tower – Cornell University This site includes video with loon calls.