Nature Scrapbook: The common loon

An adult loon with two babies swimming in the lake By Agnieszka Bacal/Shutterstock

How well do you know the iconic loon? Our favourite and famous cottage-country icon is anything but common. Loons are incredibly agile underwater, propelled by powerful, widely splayed legs, which are placed far back on their bodies. This makes walking difficult, but enables them to out-swim and catch dozens of perch, minnows, and other small fish a day.

With heavy, solid-boned bodies, the diving specialists need lake-top runways of 30 to several hundred metres—depending on the wind—to achieve lift off. Once airborne, however, they commonly clock120 kilometres an hour in steadily flapping flight, often calling while overhead. Loons have excellent underwater vision, but their striking red eyes are believed to be largely for show, highlighting them for friend or foe from across the lake.

A pair of breeding loons claims an entire small lake, or bay of a larger lake, as their exclusive territory. The vociferous waterfowl’s heart-warming wail is most often a beckoning between mates, though it’s sometimes joined in chorus by neighbours. One in five loons switch mates during spring territorial competition.

Loons lay eggs in late May or early June. Mates take turns, about every two to four hours, tending to the speckled eggs atop a concealed, shallow mound of grass and sedge at the shoreline. The nest is perched just above water that’s deep enough to permit a quick dive to safety.

Loon eggs hatch in early summer. Within hours, downy grey loon chicks splash into the water, paddling close to their parents, often hitching rides on their backs for rest, warmth, and protection, especially during their first week. One elder always tends them, usually in a quiet, protective nursery cove, while the other is out fishing. Chicks start learning to catch their own finny food when about a month old.

This article was originally published in the June/July 2022 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

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