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Call of the Wild: Loons

Call of the Wild: Loons
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The haunting cry of the common loon is vanishing from many New England waters. Whether we hear it much longer depends on us.

common loons

“Is it there? I can’t see anything.” I’m standing on a wooden dock with my husband on a chilly morning in early June, my bare feet plastered with wet grass from our walk down through the meadow. I hand him the binoculars. As he peers across the pond into the marsh, I glance back at the house, hoping our two children are still asleep.

Mist billows across the water, obscuring, then opening, our view. In the direction of our gaze, a stream runs loud after a heavy rain overnight, and I’m worried about the loons–that the nest they’ve sat on for a week may be inundated, that they’ll abandon it.

We look through the curling fog in silence. Then Jim calls out, “There it is!” He hands me the binoculars and talks me toward the narrow prow of grasses jutting by the stream, then back from its tip in among the highest stems.

We’d watched the loons build their nest in that wedge of rushes; over several days, they’d ferried pond weeds and bottom muck to the low hummock. Even so, the nest barely rises above water level. Loons’ legs, set far back on their bodies, don’t support them on land. I’d watched these loons labor to move even a few inches on shore, scooting on their chests, clumsily propelled by their feet. Underwater, though, those legs make sense. The birds pivot them for forceful strokes, draw them together and steer, and fold them back like landing gear. In Europe, the common loon goes by the name “great northern diver.” Some call it a “submarine with wings.” If it could nest in the water, it would.

I see nothing at first, then–stark, silhouetted against the mist–a long, tapered bill. The rest of the loon forms around it. The bill connects to a dark, rounded head. I follow its curve to a necklace of white vertical stripes, then out along the loon’s distinctive white-on-black moire wings. There it is, on the nest, post-downpour, safe.

In the dozen years we’ve lived by this pond in the southern foothills of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, we’ve had loons only as visitors. Until now, none have stayed.

Susie Burbidge, field biologist with the Loon Preservation Committee, the nonprofit that monitors New Hampshire’s loons, drives up in the afternoon. She crouches on the dock, setting up her spotting scope. The fog has long since burned off. We look straight into the nest; the pair has built it well. She says our pond–30 acres at best–may be the smallest in the state hosting a nesting pair. It’s ridiculous, but I feel proud.

Even before these two touched down here, I’d been learning about loons in New England. So I know that they’re mysteriously disappearing from lakes where we should expect to find them–in fact, from the very center of their celebrated recovery. Their decline has ramifications far beyond the small world of loon watchers.

LoonIn the language of wildlife biology, the common loon is an indicator species. Loons spend winters along the saltwater coast and breed on freshwater lakes, absorbing what has accumulated below them in two food chains. Their set of nesting requirements is narrow: They need clear, clean water; abundant fish stocks; and undisturbed areas in which to raise their young. They’re sensitive to industrial inputs and human activity. Their survival as a species depends on a web of healthy infrastructures–and may say something crucial about the health of the planet. I take their survival personally.

I’d wanted the pair to nest on our pond. Now I want their two eggs to hatch, the chicks to grow and fledge. I want to hear their drawn-out, parting wails as the trees turn orange and yellow, and the laughing tremolos of their return after the ice goes out next year. I want to see another nest built off the point next June. I want proof right here, outside our front door, and contrary to growing evidence, that northern lakes and coastlines remain healthy–that at least in some places we’re not fouling our own nests.

Loons are ancient birds. Near the end of the Cretaceous period, ancestral loons moved from land onto the oceans to exploit an ecological niche: Warm-blooded, they could expend more aerobic energy than the fish on which they preyed. “I pity the fish,” says evolutionary biologist James Paruk, “that first met a diving bird.”

Unlike their cousins, the penguins, loons kept the ability to fly. But they also adapted to their marine environments, and to diving for their dinners. Their bones grew nearly solid; they could expel nearly all the air from their lungs, allowing them to stay underwater for many minutes in pursuit of prey. I’ve seen loons chasing fish in shallow water and have been reminded not so much of submarines as of torpedoes.

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2 Responses to Call of the Wild: Loons

  1. Alice Huppert March 22, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

    Sir: I read the very interesting article about loons. Can you help? We try each summer to visit places that loons inhabit from New Hampshire to Maine– as far as Umbagog and Katahdin. We see very few and hear even less! My first experience hearing loons was a very breathtaking one (In 2005). I’d heard it during the night and asked the manager in the morning what bird it was I’d heard. He told me “those are the loons.” From there on I have been almost hypnotized by them. At a loon store in New Hampshire (near Squam Lake) I purchased a teaching CD on loons. I play it frequently, especially in the dead of winter.

    I have a question: Will it be much too early to return to SquamLake near the end of April? OR where would you suggest we visit this spring/summer to almost assure us we will hear them?

    Thank you so very much for your reply!

    Alice Huppert

  2. Ed Warren September 24, 2014 at 9:57 pm #

    Alice, I am replying to a 3 year old inquiry. Every summer we rent a “lean-to” in Vermont’s Groton State Park at Ricker Pond campground. Ever since 2006 there have loons that call out in the early morning hours. We have seen their young. And we have even seen them fly over head.

    You must see “On Golden Pond”! It was filmed on Squam Lake.

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