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Birdwatching Common loons: Bird that laugh and yodel

By Dr. Madeline Kalbach

For the Observer

Published on October 27, 2017 9:55AM

Note the white around the eye and thick neck of this common loon.

MADELINE KALBACH PHOTOS

Note the white around the eye and thick neck of this common loon.

Note the extensive white checkering on the back of this adult common loon in full breeding plumage, as well as its red eye, black head and bill.

Note the extensive white checkering on the back of this adult common loon in full breeding plumage, as well as its red eye, black head and bill.

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Loons like this one perform a territorial display of lifting their body upright and flapping their wings vigorously. Canoeists who get too close to a loon may witness this display, along with a defensive tremolo call as the loon swims away, according to Cornell Laboratory.

Loons like this one perform a territorial display of lifting their body upright and flapping their wings vigorously. Canoeists who get too close to a loon may witness this display, along with a defensive tremolo call as the loon swims away, according to Cornell Laboratory.

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In the last few weeks common loons have been appearing on Willapa Bay. Most are still wearing much of their breeding plumage, but this will gradually change as winter draws near. They will lose their necklace and the extensive white checkering on their back. They will also become more drab looking, and their necks will have a jagged border between the light and dark areas. In addition, they will generally wear white around the eye.

The common loon is best known for its loud wailing and mournful, haunting yodel, that at times sounds like laughter as it echoes across the clear lakes of the northern wilderness. It is a relatively large loon at just over two and a half feet in length. It is cumbersome on land because its legs and feet are placed well back on its body. Loons are generally incapable of taking off from land. Thus, they often shuffle down to the water’s edge for take-off.

The common loon mainly breeds on the clear, waters of northern lakes. The male selects a nest site in a protected, hidden place on a lake’s shoreline. According to the Cornell Ornithological Lab, because a loon does not walk well, it likes to build close to an embankment so it can approach the nest from underwater. Their research also reveals that common loons will use man-made nesting platforms and that many of them will use the same nest year after year in which case they renovate the old nest.

The procedure for nest building is interesting. Both the male and female build the nest together, usually in May or early June. Dead plant material collected from the edge of the lake is used for building a large mound. When the mound is ready one of the pair “crawls” up onto to it, squirming down into it to give its own body shape to the interior. Nests average about 22 inches wide when completed and are well camouflaged. Most folks who seeing it would just think they were looking a pile of dead grass.

Scientists have found that common loons are monogamous often staying together for about five years. However, one of the two will choose another mate if the other one of the pair doesn’t show up. The male common loon marks his territory through yodeling. He also swims in circles and performs fancy dives. The typical clutch size is one to two eggs, which are incubated for about a month. Within hours of hatching the young are able to swim and can climb on to a parents back for free rides!

The common loon is an expert diver and fisherman often submerging to hundreds of feet in pursuit of a fish. It also enjoys feeding on salamanders, crayfish, snails, leeches and aquatic insects. The common loon is common in the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding area in every season except summer. It can generally be seen foraging in large inshore bays and inlets. Places to look for them include Willapa Bay off Leadbetter Point and Nahcotta. common loons are also seen foraging in the Ilwaco harbor.

Loons are in the air as well as on the water these days. If you see a Loon fly, be sure to look up. It is a very strong flier and flies with its head, neck and feet extended beyond its body. This is an excellent identification marker. If you see a flying bird with its “feet out of bed” it is probably the common loon.





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