Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Loons of Lilley Lake 2

The Loons stayed. And you, loyal viewer, returned to Lilley Lake. Thanks for coming back.

In case you missed the earlier segment, you may want to read that first: "Loons of Lilley Lake"

Dirk's goal, always thinking of others, was to maneuver me into position for the best possible photographs. That he did. As we got close enough for this shot, I was thinking to myself, "I can't believe this is happening. That I'm really here photographing Loons this close!"

With every click of the shutter, I'm whispering "Thank you God! Thank you!"

Their feathers may lack the flamboyant colors of other birds, but this is a striking pattern of black and white. A very intricate design. I absolutely love that tapered ring of fine-line, black and white vertical stripes on the neck. Above and below this classy collar, can you detect a slight, iridescent greenish black? It all depends on the light.

The Loon's body is streamlined, torpedo-like; the head is large, the neck is strong. Underwater, the legs push the body with hard strokes and minimum drag. The feet fold up to move forward with each stroke. When it unfolds again, three large toes and full webbing push the bird to overtake the fish it's chasing.

Underwater, the wings look more like fins, prompting John James Audubon to report that the loon used its wings to swim through the water. Modern scientists say the wings are more for controlling direction than for speed. When swimming fast underwater, the loon can use a leg and foot like a brake to pivot quickly and strike with its bill at a fish trying to evade attack. Smaller fish are captured more often because they cannot swim as fast as larger fish.

Common Loon - Genus and species: Gavia immer (Latin: immerge: to dip, dive, plunge)

This one is previewing the underwater  area for possible prey, in preparation for a dive. Some scientists believe the red eye may improve underwater vision for fishing.

We could not determine if this was a male or a female, because there are no differences in plumage, and only a very slight difference in size.

There are five separate species of Loon in North America:

  1. Common Loon
  2. Arctic Loon
  3. Yellow-billed Loon
  4. Red-throated Loon
  5. Pacific Loon
The Loon is one of three freshwater diving birds. Grebes and Mergansers are the others.

The Loon's legs are located near the tail, for skill in diving and swimming ; not for launching or strolling. Its entire body is made for the water. The loon can control its bouyancy to float fully immersed, or with most of its body on the surface.

Because of its leg placement, the loon needs 1/8 to 1/4 mile (200-400km) to get airborne. The legs churn, wings whirr, and the feet are flapping on the surface in quick, panicky steps; leaving "splashprints" in its wake. Faster and faster, with frantic effort the wings finally catch air, the bird gets horizontal, and it is flying. It may require a few laps of the lake to clear the trees if it plans to find a new feeding area.

A pilot, flying near Charlotte, North Carolina, noticed a Common Loon flying at about 1200 feet; and he tracked it flying at 80-100 mph.

The Loon chicks you see here could live the average lifespan of 15 to 30 years, if they find suitable habitat.

Speaking of habitat. Look what I found on a license plate when Mary and I were walking a trail from Townsend Park (Townsend Park) to Sunfish Lake this week.

And it's from MICHIGAN! When renewing their license plate, Michigan residents can designate a contribution to be applied to a fund which helps conserve wildlife habitat. And they get this cool-looking design; like this BKPKR did. (Plate) Does your state do this? Loons are plentiful in Maine, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. They must be doing something right.

(Click on any photo to enlarge)

Loons prefer deeper lakes, as well as island nests, with deep water next to the nest. This location helps deter, predators, somewhat. Raccoons, Fox, and Mink are the chief predators of the chicks while in the egg or in the nest. Crows and Ravens may eat the eggs. Sometimes Gulls may take them right out of the nest. When they enter the water, Snapping Turtles (see post: "Non-Snapping Turtles" 6-7-12) and Northern Pike may take them off the surface of the lake.

During my research, I read that the loon's feet are extremely large in proportion to their body size. Compared to humans, the average loon foot (3" X 5") would be equivalent to a shoe size 27!

The Range of the common Loon:

Summer Nesting Grounds - Canada, Alaska, Iceland, Greenland, and northern United States: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Maine.

Wintering Grounds - Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida Keys, Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Texas, Pacific coast from California Baja to southern Alaska.

Their Courtship is gentle, ritualized bill-dipping, shallow dives, and head rubbing.

Size - Length: 28 to 35 inches; Weight: 8 to 12 pounds; Wingspan: up to 58 inches

Look at this Magnificent Bird

Look at this magnificent bird.
Pinpoints of water collect
on smooth, black velvet.
Sun glistens off wet beak
as long drop falls to lake.
Streaked wedge of collar
borders iridescent green throat.
Plump, white breast blends into
rows of rectangled whites.
Shiny black back,
holds intricate design.
Sharp black pupil watches
from deep ruby iris.
Look at this magnificent bird.

When these chicks learn to fly, as adults, they will generate 250 wingbeats per minute.
Their big feet paddle alternately. Like most birds, their body temperature is about 102*F.

Average dive time = 20 - 45 seconds. Most birds have hollow bones, but the more solid bones of Loons favors diving over aerial freedom.

When hunting underwater, they eat 99% fish: perch, suckers, bullheads, bluegills, sunfish, smelt, and minnows. Non-fish food includes: crayfish, frogs, salamanders,  and leeches.

They are flexible feeders; they eat what they find. Loons generally swallow their prey underwater, except when feeding their young.

 Loons snatch all prey in their beak. They do not spear it. Here a parent captures a crayfish...

and feeds it to one of her chicks. Generally, the firstborn is more aggressive, and therefore gets more food.

Their territory depends on the quality of the habitat, and the density of loons in the area. Generally it's 20 to 200 acres; averaging 70 acres. Loons prefer clear water, because they are sight-hunters. They do not feed at night.

Their winter, saltwater diet (Gulf and Atlantic Coasts) consists of: cod, herring, sea trout, flounder, sculpin, menhaden, mackerel, and crabs.

Nice reflection.

The nest construction is merely a pile of mud and available vegetation, with a shallow depression in the middle. A few, small repairs may be made during incubation. Although Dirk took us into Sesson Lake to search for a nest, we were unable to locate one.

Loons typically lay two large eggs one day apart, olive green-brown with dark brown spots. The eggs are 3 3/8" long, and 2 1/4" in diameter.

Incubation is shared by both males and females for 27 to 31 days (average 28 days), and about 17 hours of hatching time is needed. After emerging from the shell, the chick is unsightly, with wet, black feathers plastered against its oddly-shaped body. Two hours later, it's a cute little ball of black fluff.

After the second chick is hatched and dried, both chicks are lured into the water.

The first two weeks of life are the most dangerous for the loon chicks. The highest mortality occurs in the first four days. If it reaches three weeks old, its chances are very good of reaching fledgling age.

50 - 65 % of their first two weeks is spent riding on the backs of adults; partly for protection, partly for warmth. I wish I could have been on Lilley Lake earlier, so I could show you this classic view.

Soon after getting into the water loon chicks attempt to dive, but they pop up like a cork due to their buoyancy. At about two weeks of age their legs are strong enough to push their buoyant bodies below the surface.  Meanwhile, parents feed the young with the most abundant and easily caught prey.

In the early rearing of chicks, loons prefer shallow water close to land, and protected from prevailing winds and heavy waves. A good training area for chicks to develop their own skills at foraging.

By the third week, the parent will drop an injured fish in front of a chick, who then retrieves it. Dirk called about a week after our visit to Lilley Lake. He had observed a parent Loon that found a dying bluegill on the surface, cut it up smaller, and dropped it near the chicks. This occurred four feet off the end of his dock!

By eight weeks old, young loons are almost fully feathered, with larger feet and stronger legs. Parents now leave them for longer periods, while the chicks forage on their own. At eleven weeks they feed themselves independently for most of the day, but will still beg for food from their parents.

The calls of the Common Loon are the hoot, wail, tremolo, and the yodel. Much has been written about their haunting, unforgettable, unbelievable calls. You really have to experience it for yourself. Here is how George Harrison described it in 1983:

"If perchance you have never had the good fortune to hear the cry of the common loon, you have missed the full enjoyment of the wilderness. Like the howl of a timber wolf, the bugling of a bull elk and the singing of a humpback whale, the mournful cry of the loon is unique."

The call of the Loon is simply one of the loveliest sounds in Nature.

We are getting near the end of our story now, and I wanted you to have a chance to give a big "THANK YOU " to Dirk for his patience, his persistence, and his expert boating skills.

As we approach their nicely-kept cottage, give another big thanks to Jan, for our delicious lunch. She also graciously volunteered to stay back while Mary, Dirk, and I pursued the Loons, just so we would have more room. I told you they were nice.

From their deck, they sometimes hear and see the largest of woodpeckers; the Pileated. From their dock, they occasionally spot a Bald Eagle soaring overhead. And nearly everyday the Loons are present; fishing, sometimes right alongside Dirk's boat, competing for Bluegills.

Look at the lush, green lawn, the comfortable shade, the fire pit, feel the cooling breeze coming off the lake and rising up the slope to the deck. That's our good friends Jan and Dirk  grilling shish kabobs up there. Mary is in the yellow, waving me in for lunch. I am still out in the water taking a photograph as a last surprise for you.

Dirk and Jan gave me permission to show this. I have mixed feelings about doing it. When they sell it, I may never be able to see, hear, and photograph the lovely Loons again. However, we will always remain friends with Dirk and Jan.

But just think about it.
This could all be yours!
We could all be friends.

And the "Loons of Lilley Lakecould have more chapters.

I'll miss you "Father Nature". Please come again.


Loon Magic - (Magic) Tom Klein c 1985

Love of Loons - (Love) Kate Crowley & Mike Link  c 1987