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Cindy Wheeler | profile | all galleries >> loons tree view | thumbnails | slideshow
Loons. Loons are pretty cool. I didnít know much about loons before I took this photography trip but I learned a lot while there. Loons are waterbirds and their closest relative is the penguin and a group of birds called the ďtube-nosed swimmersĒ (including albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters). I remember the loons in the movie ďOn Golden PondĒ and remember how beautiful their calls are. You can hear loon calls here http://www.loon.org/voice-loon.php Loons can live up to 30 years and they are 2 Ė 3 feet long and weigh 6.5 to 12 pounds. Most birds have hollow bones for low weight. The loon's bones are solid to make it easier to dive. You can tell when a loon is going to dive because it lowers itís head in the water and exhales and you can see the bubbles. You can also see where itís swimming because periodically you can see more bubbles.

There were two pairs of breeding loons on this small lake. Loons are very territorial and need approximately 2 or 3 acres of water and they actively protect their territory. We would be quietly watching and photographing the loons and their babies and they were quite comfortable with us being there. Occasionally the parents would start very loudly calling and if you didnít know better you would think they were upset with us but they werenít. It meant another bird was flying over their territory. Another loon, ducks, eagle, whatever. (They didnít mind the ospreys that had a nest at the top of a telephone pole in their territory.) When they were calling because of another bird flying overhead they would stretch themselves out flat in the water and their body was lower than normal in the water. Iím not sure if they were trying to hide or getting ready to fly or go under water or what they were doing but they did it every time. A couple of times when both loons swam far from the chicks they swam the chicks over to our boat and left them right beside us. I guess we were babysitting them. 

I never saw one of the loons fly but I looked it up and read that they take 60í to ľ mile to actually get up out of the water to fly and they can fly at 80 MPH. Loons are water birds and they only go on land to mate and incubate their eggs. Their legs are placed far back on their bodies which allows them to be very efficient swimmers but they canít walk on land very well. When the loons migrate they sometimes will land on a wet parking lot or road (thinking itís a pond) and they become stranded because they need a large amount of water to be able to take off and fly. They can also become stranded in a pond if itís too small for them to take off.

When we were there the chicks of one loon pair was 6-8 days old. The mom and dad sits on the nest and once they hatch both parents feed the chicks. The parents dive to catch little minnows and crawfish. They use the beaks to ďtenderizeĒ the larger minnows and crawfish so the chicks can swallow them. I was there 3 days and the first day the parents fed them the tiniest minnows. The second and third day they fed them bigger minnows (and small ones too) and crawfish. Those crawfish looked like they were almost as large as the chicks. It was fun to watch them feed. Usually the parent gave the chick a minnow and the chick swallowed it. When the food was larger, sometimes the chick would accept it and then drop it. The parent would duck their head under water to grab the food and would try to feed it to the chick again. Sometimes this would happen 3 or 4 times before the chick would swallow it. The parent would watch the chick eat the food, sometimes with their head cocked. It was very cool to watch. I donít know how they determined which chick to give the food to. Sometimes they would pass up one chick to give the food to the other one. By the third day, the chicks were diving under water. I donít think they were catching anything but they were mimicking the parent. They really mimicked everything the parents did. They would also do the wing flap thing after preening. So cute! The loons were feeding the chicks in shallow water and we could see the adults while they were underwater looking for food. That was pretty special to see.

The water was usually very smooth and reflected the colors of what was on the shoreline. Usually it was greenery (trees) but sometimes boat docks and houses.

The chicks of the second loon pair hatched the second day I was there. There were two chicks and they were so small. The next day there was only one chick and we donít know what happened to the other chick. Also, the parents did not feed the remaining chick at all during the time we were there (appx at least 30 minutes 2x per day). We donít know why the parents werenít feeding but we hoped they would figure it out before it was too late.

The common loons migrate to the western, eastern and gulf coasts. I sure hope the loons that head south can survive the horrific oil catastrophe. Common loons were considered a threatened species in the late 1980's in Michigan. Their numbers have increased in the last few years but not enough for many of them to be decimated in the gulf.
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