by Charlie Tarbell
It’s mid-late April. The ice is partially out on Keoka. There comes a faint and vaguely familiar call from somewhere across the broken ice. Then sound registers and you smile. Spring!
The males arrive first and attempt to lay claim to a territory. The females will soon follow. Both are decked out in their new breeding plumage – a regal black and white pattern far more elegant than their downscale wintertime look. The birds are flying in from the coast where they have spent the winter; flightless, as they molted. Common Loons only remove to the lakes to breed. Eighty percent return to the same territory year after year, although they may choose different mates. Keoka is a small lake. The males will vie for domination over the entire lake. Larger lakes are shared by multiple breeding pairs, each laying claim to a cove. Either way, loons are fiercely territorial and extremely aggressive toward perceived invaders.
Loons are excellent swimmers and divers, but they are not great flyers. The species’ closest relatives are the penguin and albatross. Essentially, loons are feathered fish. Their legs are rear positioned. To fly they need over 100 yards of open water. To get airborne, first they swim, then row rapidly with their wings, then run on the water with flapping wings, and finally get airborne. Once airborne, because of their build, they fly at speeds over 60 mph.
Loons spend their first month on the lake defending their territory. Their calls are often a coda to this defense:
Hoot: One short note. A contact call when in close proximity to another loon.
Wail: A long, drawn-out call like a wolf (mournful). A contact call when far apart on the lake. Also, a warning to their mate when an eagle (or an airplane) is spotted.
Tremolo: A staccato set of high and low notes, like a maniacal laugh. Signals alarm and confrontation.
Yodel: A high and low call with repeated phrases. Only used by males in territorial defense.
Combo tremolo and yodel: Signifies alarm. A territorial defense.
Once the territory is secured, in mid-late May, a subtle mating dance takes place and the happy couple head to shore to mate. Loons only venture on shore to mate, to nest, and when sick or injured. The happy couple will also spend this first month selecting a nesting location. The species has a strong preference for small islands, as these offer protection from predators. This explains why the loon raft on Keoka over near Schaefer’s is such a perennial favorite.
A casual observer will notice many interesting loon behaviors that may imply communication but actually surround preening. Rolling, splashing, and foot waggling are all preening behaviors. Loons spend hours each day maintaining an oil coat and basically keeping themselves beautiful.
Eggs are laid soon after mating. There is an average 28-day incubation period for the 1-2 eggs a mother will lay. The eggs usually hatch within a day of each other. Once hatched, the loons abandon the nest for good (unless the chicks die, in which case loons are known to be able to hatch a second clutch).
When the egg(s) are hatched, the new family leaves the nest for a protected cove which will serve as a nursery. The baby(s) will ride on their parents’ backs for up to 21 days. Loon chicks are extremely competitive with one another and pecking for supremacy will often result in the death of the weaker chick.
Not a lot is known about how much a loon will eat. Scientists estimate that a family of loons will consume over a ton of fish in a season – still a small fraction of the fish in a lake. Loons are sight feeders and do so only during daylight hours. They mostly feed in shallow waters (3-6 feet), although they can dive up to 30 feet. Their optimal catch is a 6”-8” fish, but they will take larger fish.
The offspring will take 10-12 weeks to learn to fly. The family will spend 3-4 months together before the youngster fledges. During that time, the family must be on constant vigil for what ornithologists call “floaters” – loons who, although they are inland and open to breeding, have not secured a territory or a mate. These rogues will attempt to invade claimed territory, indeed surprising, and killing unguarded loon chicks if the opportunity presents. This behavior was witnessed on Keoka last spring. Interestingly, at the end of the breeding season when territory is no longer important, adult loons will “pack up” with other parents and floaters, moving lake-to-lake as they prepare to head off to the coast.
Loons can remain on the lake deep into the fall – even winter. They must depart before the lakes close in with ice. Depending on weather, it can get dicey. Some loons have been known to become trapped overnight by ice, without enough open water to get airborne. But the vast majority repair to the coast, molt, and spend their winter on the ocean, awaiting the warming of the air and the quickening of the heart.
Little do they know the anticipation of the human listeners who upon hearing that first loon call of the season are immediately transported to the promise of warmer weather and pending summer.