I was recently invited to take a “loon-atic” trip on a freshwater lake to observe and photograph a family of common loons. My friend, Dr. Wayne Lynch, a world-renowned science writer and photographer, has been observing and photographing three common loon families this summer. His research on loon behavior and photographs are for the book he is writing about loons.
The trick was to choose a morning when the sky was clear and the water was calm. Both were true, or almost true. Dr. Lynch rowed the two of us out in a “rubber duck,” but at about 25 yards from shore a very black cloud passed slowly overhead. It opened up dumping a gentle rain on us, and our camera gear. Back we rowed to wait for the promised sunshine. It was only a 10-minute wait. By now the mist was rising off the calm waters of the lake. It was 7:30 a.m. The loons were calling. Their rich yodel is said to be a symbol of the wilderness. Indeed, the haunting, eerie call made me feel like I was in the wilderness or the north country, even though I was only about 90 minutes outside of the city of Calgary.
There was only this one week left for me to observe these magnificent divers. It was nearly the end of August. The parents of the chick would be leaving soon for the coastal waters of Washington. The chick itself will stay for another month or so before it leaves the comfort of the its beautiful birthplace.
Common loons nest in Alberta, but they winter on the Washington and north Oregon coastal waters. Scientists who track them or do “migration tracing” indicate that most of the common loons that nest in Alberta migrate directly to Washington, where they inhabit our coastal waters during the winter. I have seen them almost every winter since 1992 in the Ilwaco harbor. I have also seen them further out on the water when I went on a boat excursion out of Ilwaco looking for pelagic species, and many times on Willapa Bay from its shorelines, especially from the shores of Leadbetter and off of the Port of Nahcotta.
The common loon typically lays one or two eggs. The chick hatches after an incubation period of 28 days. In this family, one egg was laid by the female on July 1st. By the time I saw the chick, it was feeding on its own about 50 percent of the time, but the chick was also being fed protein such small fish, dragonfly nymphs and aquatic insect larvae by its parents. The chick often begged for prey by assuming a skulking posture on the water, and on occasion by tapping at a parent’s bill, chest or neck.
Like most birds, loons like to preen. After a preening session, which seemed to go on forever, loon often assume the a “penguin pose” where it rises up vertically, treads water and furiously flap its wings. I observed this territorial display from the chick too, but its preening session was not as lengthy nor did it flap its wings with quite as much vigor as its parent. The chick was most entertaining. It was learning to do what loons do, such as swimming with its head in the water as it looked for small fish, waggling a leg in the air to cool itself off and then tucking it under its wing, and running along the water to attempt lift off.
It was an exciting and awe-inspiring adventure. The common loon family was most gracious about letting me into their lives on that early misty morning. A parent and chick often came within twenty feet of the grey “rubber duck”. They didn’t mind our presence and seemed happy to just carry on as if no one was there. I know I wasn’t a “lun-atic” for taking a chance on seeing the loon family in action, as some folks thought. It was a glorious adventure. I look forward to seeing wintering common loons that hail from Alberta on our coastal shores, rivers, estuaries and lakes this winter!
”Common Birds of the Long Beach Peninsula,” by Kalbach and Stauffer, is available from the Bay Avenue Gallery, Time Enough Books and the Long Beach Peninsula Visitors Bureau.