LOON PAGE AND GALLERY
|DEDICATED TO THE BIOLOGY AND CONSERVATION OF LOONS|
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| There is nothing like being in the North Woods at a remote mountain lake and hearing the haunting calls of the Common Loon. Everyone seems to remember when they heard their first loon call. Loons have been around for 20 million years. They are a on of the great symbols of the Northern Forest.This page is dedicated to the common loon and the northern forest. We hope that this site will not only be educational, but that it will also help you to better understand and appreciate the common loon. We enjoy watching and photographing loons year round and spend several days every year in the northern forest. We plan to constantly update this page with new information and photographs. Each month starting in July we will be adding new loon material from our recent trips. We also hope to add some audio clips of loon calls. We sell prints of all of the photos on this page. See the Order Prints Section of our website for details.Classification: Loons are water birds like ducks, geese and grebes, but scientists classify them separately. Their family name is Gaviidae. North America is home to five species of loons, including the Red-throated Loon (Gavia stellata), the Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica), the Arctic Loon (Gavia arctica), the Yellow-billed Loon (Gavia Adams) and the Common Loon (Gavia immer).Range: Common loons can be found on summer nesting grounds throughout most of Canada and the northern most regions of the United States. They winter at the ocean up and down the East and West Coasts of North America.Physical Characteristics: Of all the species the Common Loon is the most widespread and well-known and is the only one that breeds in the lower 48 states. Its distinctive black-and- white plumage gives the Common Loon great visual appeal. Their black and white spotted plumage acts like camouflage by helping them blend in with their surroundings. At the base of their tail they have an oil gland. When they preen they use the oil from this gland to make their feathers more water repellantLoons are excellent divers and have been given the nickname, feathered fish. Loons have been reported to have dived 200 feet or more below the waters surface. Their streamlined skeleton and muscular system of a loon are designed for swimming and diving. Unlike most birds, loons do not have hollow bones, but have heavy bones. Their bone density and body weight (12-14 lbs) help them dive. They can hold their head directly in line with their neck during diving to reduce drag. When they are swimming under water they do not use their wings to help them maneuver, but they propel themselves with their powerful leg muscles and large webbed feet. Their big (6″ by 4″) feet are placed far back on their body just for this purpose. Many observers believe that loons can remain under water several minutes, which is incorrect. Loons are usually underwater for less than a minute. They have flaps on their nostrils and back of their throat. These flaps close when they are underwater. These flaps allow the loon to come to the water’s surface for a quick breath and then to dive down again unnoticedSince the loon’s body is designed for diving, the loon has difficulty performing other functions. Because their legs are placed far back on their body they have a difficult time on land. They are not able to walk that well and are very awkward. They are not as mobile as they are in the water and are more prone to predators so they only go on shore to incubate their eggs.
Another function that a loon has trouble with because of their body design is flying. Their wings are small in proportion to their body size and must flap at the speed of 275-beats/minute to obtain their approximate flight speed of 60 mph. Loons have been recorded flying at up to 90 mph. Depending on wind conditions, they need several hundred feet of open water to take off. Each fall the loons judge when to leave the northern lakes to go to the ocean. If the loons stay too late, when the lakes start to freeze they may not have enough open water to fly away and they will get trapped and die.
Loons are sight feeders. We constantly see them peering under water looking for prey. Since they need light to see they usually feed in shallow water. Loons feed on crayfish, aquatic invertebrates, amphibians, leeches and fish. The most commonly eaten fish is the yellow perch. During the winter they will also feed on crabs. The ideal fish is one that is slow and has fewer spines. With the exception of large items, loons usually feed underwater. They are capable of ingesting very little water when they eat and their gizzards are designed to digest fish bones, scales, and spines. They have a elastic esophagus which allows them to swallow large fish.
Besides the sexual organs there are very few differences between the males and females. The males are bigger than the females and only the males make the yodel call.
(LOON WINTER PLUMAGE)
In the fall the loon’s plumage will start to change. Their beautiful black and white markings will change and they will become gray and white. As it starts to get colder in the north and the lakes start to freeze, the loons with migrate to the ocean where there is constant open water and an abundant food supply. It is not uncommon to see groups of 150 or more loons gathered together during migration in the fall. In areas such as Lake Superior and near the Great Lakes there may be thousands in a group.
It is amazing that a loon can survive in both fresh water and salt water. This is because their body is designed with a special gland above the eye that removes any excess salt from the body. This gland is especially important to young loons. While adult loons migrate back to the northern lakes in the spring, young loons will stay in the ocean for 2-3 years before they return to their breeding territories.
The adults will start their migration back to the northern lakes in February or March. They time it so that they are back in their northern breeding ground as soon as the ice has melted. In New England this is usually mid April. Males arrive before the females. After the females arrive the 3-week courtship starts. Females then begin to build their nest while they establish and strengthen their bond with the male.
They usually nest at the same time each year. One of the factors that affect the timing of nesting is the water level. Some times the nest site is underwater because of melting snow and/or rain. The water near nest sites is usually deep. This enables the loon to quickly escape into the water to escape predators. Loons do not build an elaborate nest. They use the bare minimum amount of materials and add material to it when necessary when incubating the eggs
Loons usually lay two eggs, and in rare occasions three. The heat from the adult’s body stimulates the growth of the embryo, so during the 30-day incubation period the nest needs to be attended to almost 24 hours a day. Both the male and the female incubate the eggs. It is incredible what weather conditions that they have to endure. There can be extreme temperature fluctuations and it can be very windy, raining and even snowy. The loons are constantly under assault form mosquitoes and black flies. There is a species of black fly that just goes after loons. Every hour the loon turns the eggs and approximately every four hours the male and female switch places. While one is on the eggs the other loon is fishing and/or swimming. If they have multiple eggs the eggs hatch (hopefully) within 24 hours of each other.
Loon chicks are born knowing how to swim so once they hatch the chicks immediately leave the nest and swim with their parents. They even attempt to dive right away, but their downy feathers make them too buoyant. The chicks will get tired from swimming so they will ride on the back of the adults. This not only helps them rest, but it keeps them warm and safe from predators. Because of the predators, newborns always have an adult with them. Larger fish like bass and pickerels can eat loon chicks.
Loon chicks grow rapidly. In three months they have grown to be the size of the adults. To support their growth, chicks need constant food. The adult loons dive under water to catch small fish (1-2 inches long) to feed the chicks. They also feed them aquatic insects like dragonfly larvae. Adults pass the food to the chicks. This doesn’t always go smoothly. We often see the adults have to recatch their prey because the chick unintentionally drops it. As the chicks get bigger so does the size of the prey and the chicks are expected to work harder for food. The prey is bitten and stunned then put in the water instead of being passed to the chick. This helps the chick develop hunting skills. When the loon chicks are approximately two months old they can hunt for themselves. At three months they can fly.
Territories and ideal Habitat:
Loons are territorial during breeding season. Depending in the characteristics of the lake, such as its size, number of islands and coves, each loon pair’s territory can range between 100 and 500 acres. Once they have established a territory they will usually return to it year after year.
The average lifespan of a loon is 25-30 years.
Loons have been studied for a long time. Researchers have been able to interpret most of their behavior. One behavior that the Biologists are unable to fully explain is the foot waggle. This is when the loon brings its foot out of the water and waves it around. There are many theories for why they would be doing this. One theory is that the loon could be stretching its foot. Another theory is that the loon waggles its foot for temperature control. The water is cold and it might be bringing the foot out to warm it up. The foot waggle could also aid in the blood circulation. Whatever the reason, the loons do the foot waggle so often that biologists wait for the loon to do the foot waggle so that they can see the colored bands.
Most threats to loon come from human activities. Loons are very sensitive to disturbances. Especially when they are on their breeding lakes.
If you see a loon on its nest with its head in a down position you are too close. If a loon is flushed off the nest the eggs are exposed to temperature changes and predation. If the eggs get too hot or too cold then the embryo will die. Nests are preyed upon by several species including raccoons, skunks, gulls, ravens, and otters. Once the eggs have hatched and the adult loons and chicks are in the water predation is rare. Any animal would have a hard time predating upon a healthy adult loon, but large fish, bald eagles, and owls can eat the chicks.
Biologists are now building artificial islands for the loons. These islands have some advantages that natural nest sites do not. One advantage is that it is harder for the predators to get to the eggs. Another advantage is that water fluctuations do not affect the artificial islands as much as the natural nest sites. The natural nest sites are more likely to either be flooded or stranded.
Loons do not like it when people get too close or when something separates the adults from the chicks. When we are kayaking we are very aware of where the loons are so that we can keep our distance. Unfortunately, we have seen loons separated from their chicks by people unknowingly canoeing and kayaking too close. If the loon does not like how close that you are getting then it will splash water or vocalize. The call that the loon gives when it is nervous is the Tremolos and/ or Yodel call. This is its way of telling you to back off.
For the safety of the loons, we recommend that you keep your distance from them and especially their nests and nursing areas. When we are photographing our number one priority is not to disturb the loons therefore most of our loon photography is done from a blind. If we see any signs or any indications that we are disturbing the loons we leave immediately. We strongly believe that a picture is not worth sacrificing the safety of the subject.
Acid rain and Pollution have a negative effect on loons. Even if the lake is polluted or has a low amount of fish, year after year loons return to the same territory/lake. The loons that nest on lakes that have high levels of pollution usually have less nesting success. If they are able to have healthy hatchlings the rivalry among the chicks is higher. This is because the adults have a harder time finding food to feed the young and so the chicks fight over what food is brought to them.
One of the biggest threats to loons is Mercury. Not only does mercury come from thermometers, fluorescent light bulbs, and batteries, but it is also a product of coal powered generating plants. There are some lakes or ponds where the mercury level is so high that there are signs warning against fish consumption. Mercury enters the food chain by entering the tissues of aquatic insects and fish. These contaminated fish and insects are then eaten by larger fish, other wildlife and even people. Since the larger species in the food chain require a larger amount of food the amount of mercury introduced into the body increases. The amount of mercury that a loon ingests can be so high that it becomes toxic to the adult and especially to the unborn chicks. This has an obvious negative affect on reproduction of loons.
Now not only do biologists band or tag loons, but they take blood samples. The biologists use the blood samples to test and monitor mercury levels, other toxins, and parasites. Tufts University School for Veterinary Medicine is conducting studies of loon mortality. Not only do they do necropsies and toxicological analysis on dead loons, they are also looking at the eggs that never hatched.
Lead poisoning is the leading cause of loon mortality in New England. To help grind and digest their food, loons swallow pebbles. Unfortunately, instead of swallowing a pebble, there are times when the loon has mistakenly swallowed a lead sinker that broke off from a fishing line. Because of this, lead sinkers have been banned in some states including New Hampshire and there had been a campaign to educate the fisherman. In order to get this important message to the fishermen, there are now several educational materials available informing fishermen and encouraging them switch to lead free sinkers.
Development is a major problem. Loons are easily disturbed; therefore they need space and privacy. Often a disturbed loon will leave its chicks or nest. Predators take advantage of the time when a chick or nest is left unattended, even if it is for a short period of time. Recreational activities and the number of homes have dramatically increased in remote northern lakes. Motorboats and jet skis are a problem, but even canoes and kayaks are disturbing. This is because someone in a canoe or kayak not only can get closer to the loons, but usually spends a longer amount of time in a loons nesting or nursery area. The closer approach can actually be more of a bother to the loon(s). Also, areas populated by humans tend to have increased populations of gulls and raccoons, which eat loon eggs.
In the 1970’s Loon populations crashed. The population is slowly recovering and has recently stabilized. Loons are at the top of many aquatic food chains; therefore they are a good indication of the health of the environment. Loons are sensitive to the same environmental conditions that affect people and other wildlife. We cannot keep polluting the environment and putting containments in the air without have an adverse affect on our environment.
Lets help preserve this beautiful creature and its habitat. As our human population grows and the wild places diminish we need to work harder to help save our environment.
Organizations that help Loons: