A Year of Loons

Loons nest on our lake but winter on the ocean. Because they can’t move well on land, the ocean tides preclude nesting on the ocean so they fly to lakes where the water level doesn’t change much during the nesting season. Loons appear on our lake right around ice out in the Spring. They seem to “hang out” for a month or so before nesting, then they incubate the egg(s), feed their chicks and then return to the salt water in the Fall.

When they arrive, they are in prime plumage so that they can impress their mate.The black is black, the white is white so they are all dressed up in their finery.

Loons start nesting in May but loons on larger lakes seem to wait longer. This might be because with a larger lake, freeze-up comes later so there is more time. No one really knows the reason, though. Loons always nest close to the water’s edge because their feet are far back on their bodies so they can swim fast but it makes for difficult land travel. In some years, this is a problem because if the lake level rises after they nest, their nests are flooded and they lose their egg(s). Loons lay either one or two eggs in their nest.

Often, the nests are hidden from view but sometimes they nest in the open. This picture is of the loon on the nest with the chicks. They will all leave the nest when the last hatching chick dries off its feathers. After that, the chicks don’t return to the nest. In fact, because loons don’t become sexually mature until four or five years old, they won’t go on land at all for that period of time. After they hatch, there are a number of predators that can attack. Snapping turtles from below and eagles from above. Apparently, it is generally the immature eagles who do most of the serious attacking if an adult is around the chick because the older eagles have learned about the sharp bill of an adult loon. The bill demands respect. In fact, when there are territorial disagreements between loons, one loon may dive under another loon and jab the loon with its bill. This may cause a puncture wound and the death of the punctured loon.

These chicks are just hatched and are still in a swampy area so they are still at risk from snapping turtle attack. However, these two were taken to deeper water and seemed to thrive. When they are small, they can’t dive so they are at risk from motor boats as well as people who want to take pictures “up close”. This stresses the adults and can cause the chicks to tire and die. All the photos you see here are taken with very long lenses and then cropped. While they seem to be “up close”, the pictures were taken when the loons were just being loons, not showing any stress signals. (If a loon “dances” toward you, this is a very stressed loon and is trying to scare you away. Get away, you are too close!)

The chicks will take refuge on the back of an adult. They will also get under the wing of the adult to stay warm at night and cool in the sun.

The adults feed the chicks small fish initially and then larger and larger fish as well as crayfish. Some parents are still offering food to the chicks in late September when the chicks really can feed themselves. At the same time, the chicks will take a free meal if offered.

The chicks keep growing bigger and bigger and by the end of the Summer are adult size without the adult plumage. Below, the picture shows that the adults are losing their Summer plumage. They become much plainer as the season progresses and spend the Winter as grayish birds. The chick is almost full grown and will start practicing flying soon.

Around this time of year, loons start migrating and while there have been groups of loons on the lake this Summer that are not “breeding pairs”, there are often quite a few loons that get together. Groups of a dozen or more have been seen on Lake Wentworth. It may be that they enjoy each other’s company but it may be that when a group of loons go after fish, some of the fish escape from one loon’s bill and swim too close to another loon’s bill. Communal fishing…..

As Winter approaches, the loons take off for the ocean. Warm weather, however, can cause them to stay too late. Loons molt when they are supposed to be on the ocean when they don’t need to fly. If loons stay too late on the lake too long, they will get stuck in the ice. If they molt, they can’t fly. The Loon Center people have done many rescues of these loons over the years. It is dangerous work because the rescuers go out on thin ice to catch a bird that is not very cooperative. The picture, below, shows a loon off Stonington, Maine that obviously has flown from some lake to the ocean in its Winter plumage. The loon is NOT in Lake Wentworth as you can see the seaweed on the rocks……