COMMON LOON, Gavia immer
For inquiries contact Patricia Vittum
The silence of the predawn hours in the northern reaches of the
Connecticut River Valley is occasionally shattered by an
unearthly tremolo cry, difficult to describe and impossible to
forget - almost like a demented person laughing. The caller is a
common loon, one of the oldest ("most primitive") birds known.
There are five species of loon, but the one most common in New
England is the common loon. This species spends the summers in
the northern parts of New England, normally nesting along the
shores of the many lakes and ponds of New Hampshire, Maine, and
Vermont, as well as the eastern Canadian provinces. However,
because there is competition for food, some loons can be seen
diving for fish in the River. The birds then migrate to coastal
waters (from the Chesapeake Bay to the Gulf of Mexico) for the
Loons are large birds, with wing spans approaching four feet, but
they are also relatively heavy birds so the large wings are
essential. They are extremely efficient diving birds, and their
legs are set well back on the body, which aids in propulsion in
the water but makes navigating on land nearly impossible. A loon
is vulnerable on land because it can only thrust its chest
forward a few inches and drag the legs back underneath the body.
As a result, loons leave the water only to nest (very close to
the shoreline) and to defecate.
Loons feed on fish and other aquatic life. They overwinter in
southern waters, primarily because they must have an expanse of
open water (sometimes as much as 400 yards) to get airborne.
They return to northern waters in the spring, where the longer
days provide ample time for the biologically expensive activities
of laying eggs and raising chicks. Loons typically produce two
eggs each year. Incubation takes about 28 days, and the parents
share the nest duty equally. The average loon pair in New
Hampshire fledges one chick each year - heat stress during
incubation and predation by large bass and raptorial birds
shortly after a chick hatches take their toll.
When the chicks hatch (usually around July 4th in New England),
they immediately make their way to the nearby water and leave it
only to defecate. The adults now take on the substantial
challenge of feeding the babies and themselves - diving for 30 to
50 seconds at a time, catching fish, and feeding them directly to
the chicks. During the first week, a chick may crawl on to the
back of a parent which is paddling along on the surface. Chicks
stay very close to the parents for the first three weeks, and
respond immediately to calls warning of birds (or airplanes)
flying overhead by scrambling under an adult's wing. The chicks
grow very rapidly and are nearly the size of the adults within
four to six weeks. They also begin to demonstrate independence,
seeking their own food, diving, and exercising their wing
muscles. They retain their dull grey back plumage during that
time, although the belly turns white.
As winter approaches, the adults congregate with other adults in
the region and migrate to more southern waters. Although loons
mate for life and normally return to the same territory they
occupied the previous year, a pair does not necessarily migrate
together, and may not be reunited until the following year.
Similarly, juveniles congregate with others in autumn and travel
together - leaving before the northern ponds and lakes are
covered with ice.
Lan, A. and W. Lynch. Loons. Firefly Books Inc., P.O. Box 1338, Ellicot Station, Buffalo, NY 14205.
Here are some other loon links