by Alan Schwoegler – Madison, WI
(friend & guest of Wawang Lake)
People love Wawang Lake’s loons. Their calls and antics are a part of every hour at the lake. During my very first vacation there, I was overjoyed to see how many loons called Wawang their home.
I have been monitoring and learning about loons through WI Loon Watch since the early ‘80’s. Most recently, I have been closely following the latest loon research and am a Loon Watch trained educational speaker. I’d like to share some things I’ve learned.
To start, the loons we love in WI, MN, MI and Ontario are Common Loons, one of 5 species of loons. There is a large nesting population in Ontario, estimated at about 200,000. In the US lower 48 states, the Common is the only loon species nesting. WI has about 4000 loons.
Loons are the oldest, most primitive, living bird. They are from ancestors at least 20 million years old.
Loons have solid bones allowing them to sink, dive and swim like masters of the water. But, flying requires a water take-off “runway” of ¼ mile (400m) to become airborne. Their legs are far back on their torso, an awkward set-up for water-landings. Legs at the rear and need for long flight take-offs make loons helpless on land. They can’t walk on land; only push themselves along for short distances. They can’t take off from land. If forced to land on ‘land’, they will starve, stuck at the landing spot. Sometimes, during migration, loons mistake wet roads for rivers. They land, and die unless rescued by people. Landing in a ‘too small’ pond for take-offs also means doom.
Loon Calls: 4 basic calls, hear them at: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/common_loon/sounds
· Wail – a back and forth location calls: “Where are you?”
· Yodel – Male only territorial call: “This place is mine!”
· Tremolo – Stress, alarm : “Something’s Wrong”
- o Flight Tremolo: similar non stress “Flying. Anybody down there? “
· Hoot – Soothing, quiet, close-by. “Hello friend, I like you”
Some other facts about our loons:
- Their average weight is about 10 lbs (4.5kg); males are usually heavier.
- Male and female loons look identical. Male loons are often slightly larger.
- Adult loons winter on the oceans. Juvenile loons migrate to the ocean in their first autumn and remain there for 3 full years until mature.
- Loons have small wings compared to their body size, so they have to move their wings much faster than other waterfowl to stay airborne.
- They need about ¼ mile (400m) to take off; a lake at least 10 acres (4 Hectare) They can fly at up to 70 mph (113 Km/hr), even faster with a tail wind.
- In one documented case, a loon flew 670 miles (1078 Km) in 1 day. 1524 m)
- Loons fly at 3000 – 5000 ft high (914 – 1524 m)
- Loons use the Great Lakes extensively as staging areas for rest; migration.
- Most Great Lakes area and W Ontario area loons migrate to 1) The Gulf of Mexico (Florida’s coast and MS, AL) 2)FL inland lakes 3)Atlantic (Florida east coast, the Carolinas, GA)
- For example, some loons from MN and WI were tracked migrating EAST to Lake Michigan; Then they feed, rest and slowly make their way to the south end of Lake Michigan. They may head to the Gulf or SE to the Atlantic, stopping at Lake Erie and then over the Appalachians. Amazing!!
- Common Loons once nested as far south as Northern IL and N Iowa. (1900). Human population, hunting and loss of habitat pushed their range further north.
- Loons do not mate for life; they are more true to a lake and territory than to a mate. However, both male and female will strive to get to the same territory year after year. If they are both able to claim their territory and defend it from others who want it, they nest with last years’ mate, in the same lake or portion of lake.
- Loons can live 25-30yrs. This is still being researched. Might be longer.
- Loons fight to claim and keep a good lake territory where they can nest.
- Adult loons consume about 2 lbs of fish and crustaceans per day. Mostly perch.
- Loons and their chicks in N WI are highly studied. A large number have been banded with colored, individualized leg bands. The bands allow researchers (and the public) to identify an individual by patiently observing them with binoculars. Adult loons who have returned and juveniles banded-as-chicks can be identified.
- A female loon has been returning to my WI lake since she was first banded in 1995. She was estimated to be 5-8 years old then. That means she is at least 25 years old if returning in 2015. She has had at least 5 mates since then.
A Loon’s Year
The beginning: March- April
Adult loons on the ocean molt their flight feathers in late winter Feb-March. They are unable to fly until the new feathers have all grown in. Once feathers are ready, the loons are itchin’ to head north. The male is especially loaded with hormones at this time and ready to head to the area he calls home.
They head north as far as they find ice-free water, utilizing the Great Lakes and river flowages to get north. Many males will hang out on a river or flowage and take flights over their home lake each day to see if the ice is gone. I have seen them fly over my iced-in lake, circle the area and fly back. WI DNR people have identified my lake’s male loon hanging out on the open WI River near Rhinelander as early as 2 weeks before my lake was open.
Territory: May – June
Male loons are usually the first to arrive and claim a territory. The female arrives soon after. As a pair, they may claim the total water area of a small lake or a portion of a larger lake. My WI Lake is 150 acres and oval. It supports one pair of loons who won’t allow others on their territory. This is known as a territorial pair. Irregular shaped or large lakes have multiple territories. I estimated Wawang Lake to have about 75 loon “territories” suitable for nesting. A pair of loons in a territory have to defend it against stronger, younger loons, male or female. A male loon will sometimes fight to the death trying to defend his “spot”. Females are less violent.
Loons with no territory or mate are known as floaters. Floaters stay on lakes or areas of a lake which are not good for nesting but hold fish. Floaters will continually fly into nest territories as intruders and challenge the resident(s) for their territory. Some of the large open areas of Wawang Lake are good examples of floater “hang outs”.
Preferred nesting areas are shallow areas with islands, points, exposed rock and bog mats. A nest is built from muck, reeds and vegetation gathered from the lake bottom by male and female together. The nest will be built high enough to be out of the water and the loons will push themselves up to sit on it. There are normally one or two eggs. The loon pair share nest duties and need about 28 days of undisturbed incubating. Weasels, otter, eagles and gulls will eat the eggs if possible. Also, if the territory is successfully taken over by an intruder (floater), the affected male or female is booted out. The remaining mate accepts the new one and the existing nest will be abandoned; the eggs left to die. It’s a tough life. When a nest fails because of mate displacement or predation, there are sometimes enough weeks left in the summer to attempt a 2nd or 3rd nest. This can never succeed however, if a new nest is started too late. (Probably later than June 15th at Wawang.) Any loon chick hatched late has a poor chance of growing big enough to fly south before its’ home lake freezes.
Chicks: Late June – July
Chicks will hatch a day apart if there are 2 eggs. The chicks take to the water immediately after their feathers dry away egg liquid. They are able to walk around on land or the nest at this time, if needed.
The chicks will sometimes ride on an adult back because chick feathers don’t keep them warm enough. Riding also keeps them away from predators. Muskie, large bass, northern pike, snapping turtles and eagles will snatch a young chick from the water. Male and female loon will catch perch, minnows and crustaceans to feed the chicks. Once again, loon intruders fight for the territory. More fights! If a new male can take over, the young chicks will be killed by him. If it is still early summer, the new adult pair may try to re-nest.
Chicks are helpless for 3 weeks. They are not able to feed themselves or dive to avoid boats. Boats are a lethal problem on crowded lakes. By 6 weeks chicks are more independent and will start to dive for food on their own. By 12 weeks old, the chicks are juveniles, able to feed themselves and start to fly.
Time to cut the ties: August – September
Once loon chicks are 6 weeks old, the adults begin to wander off now and then, one at a time, to socialize and feed. The time-away starts to increase and the parents may totally leave chicks alone after 12 weeks.
Then, the adults usually go to large open-lake areas and hang out with the “floaters”. The adult loons begin to lose some of the beautiful feather pattern and red-eye. They start to turn a dull grey prior to migration. The adults form rafts of anywhere from 25 to hundreds of loons. They feed heavily and prepare for migration.
The chicks, now juveniles, fly around their lakes and adjoining waters to strengthen their wings. They too feed heavily to get ready for migration.
An adult loon molts, begins migration
Migration: Oct – Nov
By October, adults start to migrate, singly or in very loose flocks. They do not fly together and the territorial pair seen in early summer will probably disperse to different migration destinations, not to see each other again until spring. Adults leave before their offspring, leaving the juveniles to find their own way south later. This “rookie” migration sometimes causes problems for the juveniles. They wait too long, their lake begins to freeze over, and they no longer have enough open water to take off. These poor juveniles usually become eagle food as the eagles wait at the edge of open water for the young loon to exhaust itself.
Researchers have used satellites to track migrating MN WI and MI male adult loons. The tracking allows people to see exactly where the loons were. The results of several years of satellite tracking can be seen at:
More Loon information can be found at:
http://loonproject.org/walter-piper/ (The scientist researching in my home area)
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