I like to spend a few weeks in the summer on Big Lake in down east Maine. At night intermingled with the ring of hungry mosquitoes, loons call to each other. I love that eerie sound.
Loons are migratory waterfowl that look somewhat like large ducks. They have pointed bills, bright red eyes and black and white plumage in exquisite speckled patterns. They’re beautiful birds and can be seen in modest numbers near the North Carolina coast in the winter. Winter feathers are not as bright and contrasting. They have more of a gray cast. Eyes turn gray in winter too.
The eerie call is only heard in their summer range. I’ve seen them but never heard them call around here. Young loons usually stay in their southern range for at least another year.
Often they may stay for two or three years, so we do have a few loons around here in summer. They don’t develop that characteristic contrasting plumage until they are mature which may take as much as six years.
Loons are truly unique. Most birds have hollow bones that make it easier for them to fly. Loons have solid bones like we do. This makes them excellent divers. They have been known to reach depths exceeding 200 feet. They also can hold their breath for several minutes.
Because of their solid bones they sometimes take a long time achieving flight. I’ve seen them run on top of the water for 200 yards or more before becoming airborne. Once in the air they are fast flyers. Loons have been clocked at over 80 mph.
Being heavy birds, they are unable to soar or glide. Consequently they must look for bodies of water and they can’t afford to land some place where there is not good water for takeoff. Wind can be critical too.
Feather preening is very important for loons. If only a few feathers are damaged, birds may have trouble staying aloft. Loons usually completely molt in winter, hence the different color. When they reach their summer home they will change colors again and become that characteristic black and white.
They are also spectacular fishermen. I always look for them when I’m bass fishing up in Maine. Where there are loons there will be fish.
Unfortunately, sometimes they will attack lures. I caught a loon several years ago and had quite a time freeing it while still managing to keep all but the hook of my lure. The poor guy beat the daylights out of me with his wings, but I managed to cut the hook as well as tangled line and free him. I thought for a minute that sharp pointed beak might get me, but he bolted as soon as the hook snapped.
Loons usually hatch two chicks and carry their young on their backs. Both parents play active roles raising the chicks. It’s fun to watch them teach their babies how to fish. Both parents make quite a team.
Eagle pairs make great hunting teams too. Two years ago I watched a pair of loons try to defend their family against a pair of bald eagles. Though the adults weren’t hurt, both loon babies were taken. It was sad to watch, but that’s how nature is sometimes.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (firstname.lastname@example.org).