This is the loon edition.
Loons are wonderfully interesting birds, fun to watch, really pleasant to listen to, and not nearly as plentiful as other types of waterfowl I see on the waters of the Northeast.
It’s the only waterfowl I have ever seen to practically roll over on its back to deal with an itch on its stomach. (In reality this one is probably just cleaning its feathers, but I prefer the alternative fact: scratching its belly.)
I took this photo at East Inlet in New Hampshire up near the Canadian border. (Here’s why I was up there)
Loons are heavy birds with very large feet and, like an airplane, they need long runways to take off. They run awkwardly across the water surface for approximately a quarter of a mile to pick up enough speed to take fight. Watching one take off is fun.
And because of their weight and the fact that their legs are so far back on their bodies, they really can’t walk very well and seldom try. In fact, their inability to walk is likely where the name came from: either the Old English word lumme, meaning lummox or awkward person, or the Scandinavian word lum meaning lame or clumsy.
(I so wanted the name to somehow be linked to good old loony, as in loony bin, but found no support for that. Loony seems to have come simply from the shortening of the word lunatic.)
What these birds can’t do on land they amply make up for in the air and water. Their large wings can get them up to 75 mph, and they can vanish underwater to find food or escape danger without leaving a ripple and reach depths of 200 feet or more, propelled by their large webbed feet.
New Hampshire loons head eastward in the winter over to the Atlantic Coast where there is open water. They do so because the interior lakes freeze over and if they stayed they’d become trapped by the ice, unable to take off. So basically, migration involves getting to the nearest body of water that won’t freeze over, no matter where they live in the warm season.
How do they adapt to salt water? They have salt glands in their skull between their eyes that remove the salt from the water and fish they eat and excrete it from ducts in their beak.
In late winter, they have a complete molt; losing all their feathers at once, instead of one or two at a time like most birds, because they need a complete set of flight feathers to hold up their heavy bodies. So for the two or three weeks it takes to drop the old feathers and grow new ones they cannot fly.
By April or early May, resplendent in their brand new black and white breeding coats, they are back in the inland ponds and lakes. Biologists suspect that loons return to the same general area where they were born, often returning to their very own birth lake. Loons will typically arrive on New Hampshire’s lakes and ponds just after the ice melts, sometimes on the very next day!
There is one anomaly though. In their first migration, loons do not return to their breeding area for three years on average, says Andrew East, who has studied loons as a field biologist in Wisconsin and other states. Scientists are trying to understand where loons go during that time. Seems a good time to use the looncam!
Contrary to popular belief, pairs seldom mate for life. Indeed, a typical adult loon is likely to have several mates during its lifetime because of territorial takeover. Each breeding pair must frequently defend its territory against “floaters” (territory-less adults) trying to evict at least one owner and seize the breeding site. A third of all territorial evictions among males result in the death of the owner. It’s a loon-eat-loon world out there.
I think the best thing about loons is the plantive wailing and yodeling sounds they make. I don’t even need to see the bird to be entranced. Just to look out over a small pond bordered by deep woods and hear that call is enough to make me want to just sit down and enjoy where I am. Here are some sounds for you.
And if you want to see the rest of the itches, start here.