Common Loons

It’s June again, time to head to Maine for the annual (five years and running) attempt to photograph baby Loons riding on their parent’s back. After eight days of exhaustive searching we found only one active nest with a Common Loon incubating eggs on an old derelict unused dock. On this same lake in past years we have typically found five or six nesting pairs.

Also, contrary to past years, when we found nests with an incubating parent (yes, both parents incubate the eggs, unlike duck species, where only the female stays on the nest) the other parent was always in the water patrolling close by. Unfortunately, this year we saw only one such instance, while on a number of other occasions pairs of Loons were travelling together, suggesting their nesting efforts had already failed.

The particular lake we surveyed has suffered considerable fluctuation of water levels as this has been the wettest spring in years. Consequently, it is easy to surmise that other Loon nesting attempts this year have been flooded out as Loons typically nest inches above the water level and right at the water’s edge.

We monitored the one nest we found daily, hoping to discover that the eggs had hatched and the babies were now happily riding on their parent’s back. Regrettably, we arrived one morning to find that one intact egg was out of the nest and the second eggshell was broken and also out of the nest. (photo 2) Our initial hope was that one egg had hatched and the baby was now happily riding on the mother’s back. Those hopes were soon dashed when we found the Loon pair not far from the nest without any young anywhere in sight. Oh well, maybe next year will be the charm.

Serendipitously, while in Maine I received an email from a reader suggesting a Hart Beat topic: “Do birds have variations in body parts like humans? … Could it be that birds have variations in bill size like humans have different noses? Maybe they do have legs longer or shorter, height differences, etc. …” Of the many Loon photos I took on this trip, one was a close-up of a pair (photo 1 at the top of the page) which clearly discloses the difference in the markings on the neck bands of each. I wondered whether these differences could be the equivalent of finger prints in humans. Despite considerable conversation with Mr. Google I was not able to find a definitive answer to this question. However, as to the reader’s suggested topic: Loons do vary in size and weight from 7 to 15 pounds; males are generally 25% larger than females; territorial males are the biggest and strongest and have the best projection in yodeling their territorial calls; relative size and weight is critical in male Loons establishing and defending their territories, as well as in challengers seeking to take over a territory; some males are sneaky and will attempt to mate with a mated female if the opportunity arises; and larger heavier birds are able to stay under water longer and thus may be more successful in catching fish.

The answer to our reader’s question: Yes, there is significant variation in the body parts of birds. A close examination of the pair in the photo above discloses different head shapes, and bill and body sizes, as the larger one is undoubtedly the male and the smaller one on the left is the female. While we humans may have difficulty noticing the variations in different individuals of a bird species, the birds themselves are certainly aware of those differences and establish their “pecking orders” accordingly.

While we were once again unsuccessful in our quest for photos of baby Loons on their parent’s backs, that does not mean we did not take pictures. Watching a Loon preen one cannot help but be impressed with the large webbed foot dangling in the air (photo 3) which the Loon uses exclusively for its underwater propulsion. When swimming the Loon’s wings are tucked tight to the body, the tail acts as a rudder, and the feet, far back on the body drive the bird forward. After a swim, as the Loon prepares to rise and flap its wings to get all the feathers back in proper alignment in a process called “rousing,” the image “aircraft carrier” came to mind. (photo 4) And finally, when the Loon rises just off the water to flap its wings it is an impressive sight. (photo 5) In addition, drifting close to islands in the lake searching for Loon nests, we had the opportunity to observe numerous Eastern Kingbirds and a Red-eyed Vireo gathering nesting material, which is a sight not likely to occur in Florida.

And so, Dear Reader, another Maine summer trip is now in the books, and while unsuccessful for our hoped for baby bird shot, it was still a fun and happy trip in all other respects. Many hours of delightful time were spent on the waters of the beautiful lake, many happy hours socializing with some of our best friends, and many photos of wonderful and exciting birds, even if not the specific shot we hoped for. In the midst of it all came a most thought-provoking email sparking a challenge to produce photos that illustrated the unique differences in individual birds within a given species. Hopefully, the above photo meets that challenge, at least in some small way. But it is probably too early to begin planning next June’s trip. We still have the rest of this summer, a winter in Florida and all of the anticipation of next spring to get through before that trip. It’s hard to think about it, but maybe actually finding and photographing our target baby birds might now be anti-climactic and we certainly don’t want to lose our excuse to take our annual Maine trip. Not any more than climate change might deprive us of our excuse to winter in Florida. Not likely!!!

For information on why baby birds of some species ride on their parent’s backs, see: blogs.discovermagazine.com/inkfish/2017/11/30/why-some-bird-babies-ride-piggyback/#.XQ06QOhKibg.

For earlier Hart Beat columns on previous Maine trips, see: Crazy About Loons and An Unsuccessful Trip?