The cry of the loon is a signature summer sound on Kezar Lake. Whether paddling a canoe or kayak or traveling by boat, we all enjoy an encounter with these beautiful birds and their chicks. Summer wouldn’t be the same without them.
In his presentation at the 2014 KLWA Annual Meeting, John Cooley, Senior Biologist at the New Hampshire Loon Preservation Society shared many interesting facts about this iconic species.
Humans are Hazardous to Loon Health
Loons are extremely vulnerable to human interaction, and their survival depends in part on active management of their habitat. They are especially vulnerable to boat traffic and entanglement in thoughtlessly discarded fishing tackle. Lead sinkers are especially problematic. Mercury levels in the water are also an issue. Stay away from nests during nesting season.
They spend summers on inland lakes in Canada and the far northern United States, and winter. in both east and west coastal waters. Climate change is impacting their range, pushing them ever farther northward in the summer. Some wildlife biologists believe that in less than 100 years, loon habitats will no longer exist in the US.
In recent years, heavy June rains and subsequent high water have also resulted in multiple nest failures. The failure to reproduce is a trend that has been increasing in frequency all over New England. This is the reason why KLWA embarked on a Loon Nesting Platform Project.
What Makes a Loon a “Loon”?
Though related to the albatross and the penguin, loons are a unique species. They’re outstanding swimmers, with bones denser than those of other birds, which helps them sink beneath our lake waters. Their wings are small and located toward the back of their bodies. This makes flying difficult and they need a “runway” of up to ¼ mile to get off the ground. Once airborne, they’ve been clocked at speeds of up to 70 mph.
They do not walk upright like ducks and other waterfowl as their feet are located rearward. This aids their ability to dive at high speed and maneuver quickly to catch fish; however it also makes nesting on land difficult. Loons can’t walk on land! Because of this, nests are typically built close to the water’s edge.
Everything You Wanted to Know about Chicks
Nesting peaks in early June, when the female typically lays 2 good-sized eggs. A bad black fly season can drive her off the nest. And high water levels can flood out the nest, resulting in the loss of her eggs. She sheds toxins ingested in the fish she eats into the shells. Here’s where mercury and lead are problems, as both reduce egg viability. The female incubates her eggs for about 27-28 days, and the first hatchlings usually appear around the 4th of July.
By mid-July, these babies are out swimming, though they remain vulnerable to predators such as snapping turtles and eagles. The juveniles that survive are on their own by about 12 weeks, when Mom and Dad leave for the coast. The season’s chicks leave a few weeks later, and will remain on the coast for 2 or 3 years before returning inland as fully grown adult birds.
All other things being equal, a loon’s life expectancy is between 20 and 30 years.
A Few Facts We Didn’t See Coming
Loons are highly territorial, and interestingly, do not mate for life. Each season, returning birds check out the local nesting sites, and females determine their partners for the coming year. Loons will engage in battles for territory, using their sharp bills to inflict sometimes mortal wounds on a rival for prime locations.
All is not sweetness and light out there. Sibling rivalry can be as deadly for those cute fuzzy chicks as other predators. Sometimes this results in the stronger chick destroying the weaker.