Thursday, May 25, 2017

Common Loons: The Spirit of the North Woods Visits California

For whatever reason, I have long been fascinated by loons.  Like the mournful call of the Gray Wolf echoing across a frozen wilderness, there is something in the cry of the Common Loon that embodies the very essence of wilderness, inspiring a sense of adventure while also instilling a feeling of peace and tranquility.

Or at least, that's what I've led myself to believe, having never heard the call of the loon in person.  (It's on my to-do list.) 

Common Loons visit coastal California during the non-breeding winter season.  As it would happen, loons are generally silent during this time of year, and cry their eerily beautiful and plaintive song primarily during the breeding season (i.e. when they're not in California).  Common Loons are synonymous with wilderness lakes of the north woods, breeding across Alaska and Canada, as well as the very northern reaches of the United States.  (Minnesota seems to be known for its loons, and breeding loons also reside in Glacier National Park.)  During the winter, Common Loons wear drab non-breeding plumage; this is how they are typically dressed in California.  But in the spring, just before they migrate north to breed, they change into the classic and elegant breeding plumage typically associated with Common Loons.

During the breeding season, loons prefer quiet, open lakes sheltered by conifer forests, but may also breed on tundra ponds beyond the treeline.  They are particularly sensitive to human disturbance, and tend to favor remote stretches of wilderness.  In the winter, Common Loons migrate to ocean waters, typically staying in shallow, nearshore areas where they are usually solitary.  The loons in these photos were seen at Moss Landing, in the vicinity of Elkhorn Slough
Loons are designed for fishing.  They have dagger-like bills and their streamlined bodies are propelled through the water by large webbed feet set far back on the body.  The feet are set so far back that these birds are very awkward and top-heavy on land (picture a duck, standing or walking with its body balanced over its legs, then imagine the legs moved back toward the tail).  Loons very rarely come ashore other than to breed and nest.  Loons are excellent divers, submersing silently and without a splash to pursue fish.  When fish are scarce, loons may also feed on invertebrates like mollusks, crustaceans and insects.
Common Loon in drab winter plumage
Loons are highly submersible; unlike other birds, they have dense bones that allow them to be less buoyant and better suited to swimming underwater great distances in pursuit of fish.  Like grebes, loons can submerge themselves in the water, leaving just their head exposed above the surface.  They frequently dip their head below the surface to look for fish.

Loons require large, open lakes, as they need a sort of "runway" before taking flight.  Up to a quarter of a mile of unobstructed water is required as the loons flap their wings and run along the surface of the water before takeoff.  Like many other species of wildlife, loons also depend on clear, unpolluted water. Acid rain reduces the fish populations loons depend on, and oil spills, especially common in ocean waters where loons spend the winter, are death sentences for loons.  Lead poisoning is caused when loons ingest lead fishing sinkers along with pebbles from the lake bottom (necessary for grinding food in the gizzard), and has caused a significant number of loon deaths.  Human activity on lakes and along their shores - particularly the use of motorboats - has led to the abandonment of numerous historic nesting sites.  Climate change is also a major threat to loon populations.

If you plan on visiting the northern woods and lakes that are home to breeding loons, consider your impact on local wildlife.  Create as little disturbance as possible.  Whether you're camping, hiking, fishing or boating in the north woods, along coastal waters or anywhere else, always always practice "Leave No Trace" ethics and clean up after yourself - and others!
Since I've talked so much about it, listen to the call of the Common Loon at Cornell's All About Birds: 

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