How could someone have named this bird “Common”?
A week ago I stepped out on our deck on a perfect summer morning and heard the sound that sets a Minnesotan’s heart aflutter – the sound of a loon’s laughter, officially known as the tremolo call. This call is made both on the water and in the air as the bird flies. I stood and tried to pinpoint where it was coming from as it got gradually louder and louder. Finally, I realized it was coming from the south and headed our way. It came into view and flew toward the house, then banked left and continued flying to the west. It was a wonderful gift.
We are the only state in the Union to choose this amazing water bird as our state bird. It is appropriate that we would do so, because it has come to symbolize northern wilderness with its varied, haunting calls. In fact, Hollywood often chooses the loon call to be the sound in the background in films with wilderness settings, including some set in the tropics! Listen closely and see how often you hear it.
If you look at a North American bird field guide you will find the very first birds to be profiled are the loons. (The only exception to this rule is the newest 5th edition of the National Geographic Field Guide of Birds of North America which has placed them behind the geese and ducks for some reason). It is the Common loon (Gavia immer) that we see in Minnesota, though there is nothing common about it. The field guides have been designed to show the birds in order of geologic age. Loons are the oldest genus of birds on earth. The fossil record goes back 70 million years. Hard to grasp, but all the more reason to treasure them and do all we can to protect and preserve the species.
This loon is preening its feathers. Like all birds that spend much of their lives in the water, they must regularly spread an oil from a gland near their tail to all their feathers.
Minnesotans lucky enough to live on a northern lake, with a good fish supply may have a loon pair spending the summer months with them. If there are protected bays or shoreline with good vegetation for cover, it’s possible the loons will build a nest very close to the water’s edge. They do this because they need to be able to slip into the water easily since they are not adapted to walk on land. Their legs are set far back on their body, which enables them to dive effortlessly and with great strength, but are almost useless for land travel.
Just below the black and white ‘necklace’ there is a band of feathers around the neck that is emerald green in the sunlight.
Nesting so close to the water’s edge has it perils; mainly in the form of waves created by boats. Jet skis have presented even more of a threat, since they can go into smaller spaces than many fishing boats and create large waves that easily wash over the nest, causing eggs to float away. Most lakes with loons living on them have very protective Lake Associations. People feel a sense of ownership with their birds. You often hear them talking about “our loons” as they describe the arrival of the birds and their summer activities, especially the raising of the little ones.
It is believed that loons return to the same lake year after year, and will reuse the same nest, if possible, but there will always be competition from newcomers looking for a good home. That’s what’s happening right now as the loons return to the northland and begin the urgent task of finding a suitable place to raise a new generation of beautiful, black and white symbols of our state.
By Kate Crowley
Photos by Mike Link