Monday, September 16, 2013

POTM...*: The Season of the Loon

(*Photo of the Month)

Here in the U.P. we have begun to see the southern movement of Canada geese in chevron flight. Maple trees have reddened, lakewater is cooling daily, songbirds have silenced even as red squirrels have undertaken their frenzied chattering, and fresh patches of wildflowers are becoming few and far between. These to us also mean that the end of another loon season is coming on. Last month, my photo of the month featured the Colorado mule deer; I thought this time I would enjoy featuring the Michigan common loon.
The Lord did well when
he put the loon and its
music in the land.
~~Aldo Leopold

The season of the loon is one of the things many mid-northern amateur naturalists look forward to most. One of the most ancient of extant birds, and therefore frequently listed first in many ornithologies, a pair of adult loons, mated for life when possible, will often somehow show up on the water in spring within hours of ice out. Here in northern Michigan on the lake where we are blessed to own a small and rustic cabin, this can be any time between March and early May. Strengthening and cavorting for several weeks as time allows, the female will then generally lay two eggs in late May or early June (olive-colored with black flecks) and the pair share incubation for about twenty-eight days, before the fluffy chicks, buoyant as a ping-pong ball and twice the size, are hatched.

Adult with three-week-old juvenile
Nesting is the only time loons spend on land, upon which they are always completely clumsy. (In fact, a loon cannot even take flight from terra firma; if it happens to come down on a wet parking lot in the spring, thinking it a lake, it must be captured and transported to water if it is to survive.) No, it is certainly water diving for which the loon is perfectly designed. In the first days of life outside the shell the chick will ride on the back of the parent or float under the shelter of a wing, the adults providing meals of small fish, crawfish and water insects. But the young grow quickly and are soon diving on their own, though not meeting the adult success rate! Within about two months of the hatch the juveniles are full-grown, practicing take off with a long, loud flapping ‘running start’ and skimming to a halt on their stomachs, looking something like a sledding penguin in this latter regard, and sometimes crash landing in the process. Parents and offspring will also begin to separate more at this time, with the adults often beginning their migration southeast to the Atlantic or gulf coast by mid-September or early October, leaving the juveniles to develop flight skills in time to get off the water before November or December ice in, for a loon cannot take off from ice either. Typically, a loon born that season will spend three or four years in the south before beginning its own annual migration north to nest and fledge, usually (and amazingly) doing so within a mile of its birthplace.

Red-eyed, and impeccably patterned in brilliant black and white spots and lines that camouflage it against the background of moving water, the adult is a swimming and diving machine. Our binocs and camera ever at the ready, we never tire of watching them, whether diving, preening, calling, feeding, stretching, flying, or simply lounging on watertop. We especially enjoy watching the diving lessons, fishing lessons and flying lessons given by parent to young, often comical. Of particular and very rare delight are the times when we are able to watch a loon swim under our canoe or dock, speeding like a torpedo but able to turn after their quarry on a dime; son-in-law BJ is the only one in the family to have ever caught that action on film.

Two-month-old juvenile
But it is the haunting and lovely loon call that seems to define the Northwoods lake even more than the sight of the bird. These are sounds once heard never forgotten, like that of the whip-poor-will. There are four basic vocalizations – the wail, tremolo, hoot and yodel. The wail is the ubiquitous call most recognized, heard often after dark, approximated by those who can whistle through cupped hands, and used for many purposes by the animal but most often in communication with its own mate. (This is one of my favorite ringtones on my phone, assigned only to calls from my wife!) The tremolo is the call heard routinely when the bird is in flight or, if on the water, when sensing threat; and the hoot is a very quiet and gentle ‘who’ sound used for close-in communication with its family, almost as if to say “You OK? I’m good here.” The yodel is the one that freaks some people out; done only by the male as a territorial statement, it is an almost other-worldly sound, usually made also after dark, often joined in by as many other loons as can hear it; and when males yodel the females in the area often chime in with their own wails. Add to this all the bouncing echoes typical in evening stillness? What an evocative and memorable cacophony it can make at any hour of the night.

Three-month-old juvenile; note the flatter head
As with all wildlife, loons are not without their share of predators. Chief among the natural dangers while nesting are coyotes, or of raiding nests, raccoons, skunks, otters and snakes, though an adult rarely leaves its eggs unattended. Also while on the nest, the adult can in some years be so pestered by black flies or mosquitos as to be driven off the nest and give up the eggs. However, if the adult loses its first clutch, or even its first hatch, it has time to lay a second clutch and try for better success the second time around. If this must happen a third time, though, the young can be in danger of incomplete flight readiness before ice in. Dominant among the natural dangers after hatch are eagles from above (who particularly prey on the inexperienced young, the presence in flight of which will immediately evoke intense tremolos by any loon whose sharp eyesight spots it), and large fish or snapping turtles from below (also preying upon the young, grabbing a small webbed foot, pulling it down and drowning it). As a result, adult vigilance is constant, and usually effective. From the human realm, motorboats are also a tremendous danger to adult and young alike, requiring like vigilance from high-speed ‘drivers to yield to the divers.‘

In recent years, we have been fortunate with unusual success by ‘our’ loons. Very near our place and within our little bay on 330-acre Beatons Lake, Gail and I are lucky enough to have one of two island nesting platforms maintained by volunteers from our property owners’ association. Very effective in protecting a nest from at least its land predators, it is a rare year recently when this island does not see two loons successfully raised, and of course, this allows us regular visual access to the birds throughout the summer whenever we are here. Successful loon hatch is a big deal on the lake, one or two loons coming off the other platform almost every year as well. We can all get rather animated about it all, as you can probably tell, with loon progress a constant source of conversation among many of us.

There are some cool loon cams out there on the internet. If you can’t get to a northern lake next June, they are worth checking out. Try this one next year.

In God’s hand is the life
of every living thing.
~~The Bible, Job 12:10

~~RGM, September 10, 2013

P.S. Up next week? A “Blowin’ in the Wind” column that might be of particular interest to you trumpet players…

No comments:

Post a Comment