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From the June 2014 Conservationist

Common loon with chick

Photo: Howard Jennings

Spirit of our Northern Waters

The Common Loon

By Howard Jennings (photos); David Nelson (text)

Common loon with chicks
Loon chicks are able to swim within a
day or two of hatching.

Taking advantage of the early morning solitude, I eased my canoe into the water as quietly as possible. Thick fog rose gently in columns from the lake's surface. I paddled silently, daring not to let the wooden blade of my paddle surface, lest even the sound of dripping water shatter the stillness.

Suddenly, a soft splash came from my left. Instinctively, I turned, but couldn't see anything through the shrouded mist. The sound came from just a few feet away, yet I didn't know what made it. First, a soft "hoot," and then a louder tremolo belied the loon's presence, and its unease at surfacing so near my canoe. With a knowing smile, I relaxed, and held perfectly still, allowing the loon and me to go our separate ways without further ado.

Second only, perhaps, to a wolf's howl, the wailing calls of common loons have come to symbolize unspoiled wilderness more than any other sound in nature. Reminiscent of something deep down within our souls, the cry of a loon is something to behold.

Common loon taking off
Heavy birds with legs located far back
on their bodies, loons need a runway on
a large lake or pond to build up enough
speed for flight.

Our only resident loon, the iconic common loon is often described as the spirit of northern waters. With legs found extremely far back on the body, and with dense bones unlike most birds, loons' bodies are well-adapted to swimming and diving. In fact, they can dive to depths of 200 feet below the water surface and remain underwater for more than a minute.

But these same adaptations to a successful watery existence make life on land difficult. For a loon, walking on land is nearly impossible. Instead, they must push and shuffle themselves along. Heavy birds, loons need a long "runway" on a lake or large pond to build up enough speed for flight. In fact, if they land on too small a pond, they may not be able to take off again. As a result, loons are seldom found on ponds smaller than a dozen acres in size.

Loon nest
Loons lay one to two eggs in a nest
at water's edge.

Loons return to the same water body each spring. Soon after ice out, a mated pair immediately gets down to business, renewing pair bonds and beginning nesting duties. The nest is built at the water's edge by both the male and female, often on a point of land or preferably a small island, difficult for a four-legged predator to reach.

Common loon pair with chicks
Chicks will often ride on their parents'
backs. (Note the fish in the bill of the
adult loon on the left.) These two chicks
are fighting to determine dominance.

Female loons usually lay a clutch of two eggs, between mid-May and June. After about a month, the young hatch; chicks are covered in dark fuzzy down, and enter the water within a day or so. Recently hatched chicks often ride partially hidden on their parents' backs tucked snugly under folded wings for warmth and protection. For the first few weeks of life, young are entirely dependent on the adults, which feed them insects and tiny fish. After a few weeks, young are able to make short dives and catch small fish on their own.

As summer progresses, the young grow, swimming further from the parents and honing their diving skills. After about three months, young "fledge" and are on their own. Juveniles may spend several years on the ocean before returning inland to breed.

Common loon with chick
Adult loons feed their chicks insects
and tiny fish.

Loons were once more common than they are today. Lake acidification, bioaccumulation of pollutants, human disturbance and other factors affected loon populations. In addition, fluctuating water levels can further reduce loons' already low reproductive potential, because their nests are located at the water's edge. More recently, however, loons appear to be holding their own and may be learning to adapt to man's presence.

Juvenile and adult common loons
By late summer a juvenile loon
is almost the size of an adult.

Biologists in Vermont and New Hampshire have experimented successfully with placing small floating nest platforms that rise and fall with the water level. Small enough for a loon to defend, they are always accessible from the water's surface. For the most part, suitable nesting habitat in NY make rafts unnecessary. Loon populations are on the increase in our part of the world. That is not to say these denizens of the deep northern lakes are "out of the woods;" oceanic pollution, carelessly discarded fishing line, mercury, accidents and weather all take their toll on loon populations.

Common loon pair with a chick
Loons form strong pair bonds and will
return to the same water each spring to

Common loons nest in lakes and ponds throughout northern North America. In New York, loons can be found throughout the Adirondacks, the St. Lawrence River Valley, on Lake Champlain, and a couple of Finger Lakes. Especially vulnerable to human disturbance during the breeding season, nesting loons and loon families should be given a wide berth.

An adult loon swimming in the water
An adult loon has bright red eyes, a
black head and a checkered back.

Enjoy loons from a distance, and teach others to respect them as well. Lent a helping hand, and given an improving environment in which to thrive, the common loon is here to stay. May their haunting calls reverberate throughout the Adirondacks for generations to come.

Retired from teaching, photographer Howard Jennings devotes his time to creative photography. His work has been featured in Adirondack Life, Darkroom Photography, and New York Teacher, among others. In the summer of 1982, he had the honor of studying with Ansel Adams.

Conservationist Editor Dave Nelson was a Loon Ranger for the Loon Preservation Committee in central New Hampshire in his college days, and still has a soft spot for loons.