Wintering with the Loons
By Rosalie Triolo
Photo courtesy of John Rockwood
Those hot, humid days of summer are waning and soon the cooler days of autumn will be upon us. With a change in temperature migratory birds fly south. Living here in the Lakes Region, the unmistakable honk of the geese flying in V formation overhead signals their departure to spend the winter in warmer climates. However, there are those birds, the House Sparrow, for one, who choose to stay and brave the cold of winter by storing fat during the days to keep them warm throughout the long, freezing nights.
And then there are the loons! Where do loons migrate to in autumn? Actually, they winter in the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean. If you drive along the coasts of Maine or New Hampshire in winter, you may recognize those small groups of dull grayish brown water-birds you see bobbing up and down on the ocean’s bleak frigid winter waves as loons. Their easily identifiable, striking summer plumage of black head with white belly and breast, a black and white striped ring around its neck and wing feathers dotted with white spots changes to its mottled winter features. Twice a day, when the tides roll in, the loons dive down to find food in and around the tide pools near shore.
Loons begin to leave New Hampshire lakes from mid to late September. For those few weeks, with the help of binoculars, you will notice graying around the loon’s bill. A basic gray molt moves down the feathers and black feathers fall out. However, they do not shed the primary feathers on their wings. Harry Vogel, Senior Biologist and Executive Director of the Loon Preservation Center located on Lee’s Mill Road in Moultonboro, explained how most loons will stay on our lakes until mid-September, though there are a few who feel that maybe they can stay just a bit longer. Those are the loons who sometimes get caught in a dangerous situation, such as an early freeze. So how do we know when loons are in imminent trouble if they stay on the lakes a bit too long? Information gathered by biologists at the Loon Preservation Center or from reports of siting’s by Volunteer Observers tell us that even though the loon’s wingspan is up to five feet, their wings are comparatively small. Because the loon’s bones are very dense, their wings tend to hold a lot more load per square inch than any other bird, except for the swan whose bones are also very dense. Dense bones account for why the loon sits low in the water. Also due to the density of their bones, loons are less buoyant. Using their strong back legs to propel them enables the loon to dive deeper and for longer periods of time while looking for food. However, a loon needs a long runway of calm open waters and just enough tailwind to achieve lift-off. If ice begins to form, even a thin layer of ice would prohibit the loon from attaining the necessary lift to become airborne.
“In early spring, when it is time for loons to return to the Lakes Region,” Harry Vogel describes, “the adult males leave the ocean waters first, looking for thawing waters of the northern frozen lakes.” He likened it to a reconnaissance mission. Loons, it is thought, mate for life and usually return to the same body of water as the year before. Living near or on one of the lakes in the Lakes Region, you may spot a returning loon, listen to its haunting yet comforting call which signals that spring is breathing new life into our surroundings. Loons prefer to build their nests close to shore, in quiet coves or in areas surrounded completely by water.
Soon after mating, eggs are laid and it takes 26 days before an egg will hatch. Both male and female loons take turns protecting the incubating eggs. Baby loons are born with tufted grayish brown feathers. Both parents participate in raising their young. Unfortunately, 30 percent of all chicks do not make it through the first year. At two months, the chicks are diving and swimming like their parents and a grayish-brown plumage is visible. When they are capable of caring for themselves, the parents leave their young and will fly off to other lakes for a gathering of loons.
A bit of Native American legend tell us that “Earth-Diver” was a name given to the loon by the Native American Chippewa Nation. The Chippewas make their home in the northern part of the United States and southern Canada. An important part of Native American myths, legends and folklore, loons are symbols of harmony, generosity and peace.
“Loons are a powerful force of nature.” The Chippewas tell the story of the bird they called the “Earth-Diver.” It is said, “The Creator spoke to all the animals and instructed them to find a way to create land, so they would all be able to move from water to this land. Taking up the task the animals went about trying to find ways to create land. None of the animals succeeded. All they could do was swim around in the water. The loon with his powerful legs and dense bones dove to the bottom of the ocean floor. Upon surfacing, he was saddened by the fact he thought he had not succeeded. But when he shook the water from his foot, a batch of mud fell from it and the Creator had dirt to form the land.”
To learn more about the life of a loon, visit the Loon Preservation Center. Enjoy a “Forest Walk” on a short and easy loop, or “The Loon Nest Trail” which takes you on a walk through upland forests, marshes, and clear streams to a spot overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee. Written in a brochure by the Loon Preservation Committee, a quote by A.C. Bent in 1919 says, “Who has ever paddled a canoe, or cast a fly, or pitched a tent in the north woods and has not stopped to listen to this wail of the wilderness? And what would the wilderness be without it?”
Indeed, what would the wilderness be without the haunting wail of the Loon?