Monday, 2 September 2013


Loon at dawn on Beaver Lake.
Taking on air to gain buoyancy.
The avian embodiment of the North Woods is the common loon. Like grebes, after almost being wiped out by pesticides, they have made a steady recovery and almost every lake is now haunted by their eerie calls. Every New England tourist gift-shop sports photos, books, paintings, videos and models of loons. It's the same over in Minnesota which is another place where the Canadian forest extends south into the USA.

We see them in Europe too, but mostly during winter and we call them Great Northern Divers. They really are big; much larger than the red throated and black throated divers that breed with us. They can be mistaken for geese when they ride high in the water, or for cormorants when they sink themselves.

At Beaver Lake we watched a pair of loons every day. They were the first living things that we heard each day and they would appear out of the mist at around 6 am, often close to our dock. Sometimes we approached them by canoe, which did not seem to bother them much.

Their tameness surprised me. In previous years at the lake we have only heard them, or caught a glimpse of them early in the morning but this pair stayed around all day, close to people on the shore and anglers in boats. They also seemed to eat enough sunfish to feed an army of cormorants.

If you watch them closely, you quickly see which bird is the male. His patterns are brighter and his outline is more solid. His movements seem more deliberate or purposeful than the languid, almost casual dives made by his mate.

A lot of time is spent in hunting mode with the neck held short and just the head and part of the back showing above the water. The loon will look left and right then go go "snorkeling" with its face under water. The head flips up for air and then leads the body under the water in a smooth arc, causing barely a ripple. Watching this I was reminded of whale watching in Norway or otter spotting in Scotland.

They stay under water for half a minute at a time in our shallow lake, but can go much longer. When they surface, it is usually with a fish, but it is hard to tell. Unlike cormorants, they do not often lift their prey out of the water to swallow it. Most fish are small and are delicately dealt with on the surface. This could be because sunfish are quite spiny.

After a fishing session, it's time for a wash and brush-up. Loons push themselves up like a ship's figure-head and give their wings and body a good shake. This seems to expel the water from between their feathers and replace it with air so that they now float like geese. This might be a preparation for flight of just a comfort stop before another bout of fishing.

Of course it is the call of the loon that most people will recognise, even if they have no clue what a loon actually is. I saw American parents pointing out "the ducks" to their kids and when I excitedly explained that they were not ducks but loons, I got blank stares in return. Yet every kids' comedy show uses the loon's cry to denote wilderness, even if it is supposed to be a waterless desert. I once heard a loon call at the ranch in the "Dallas" TV show. Even the BBC uses loon calls inappropriately; in "Hound of the Baskervilles" for example.

Our dock.
You have to admit that yodelling call is so evocative of water and wildness that it just seems to connect with your spirit without being processed by ears and brains. And then there is that link-cut profile. The square head, checker-board spots and dagger-like bill all fitting together with tight economy of design to make a work of art, ......a loon.