The Common Loon

By ElizaBeth Coira

As the chilly days of winter melt slowly away to reveal the fluidity of the lake once more, life too returns to the newly freed waters. From wriggly, shimmering fish darting to and fro just below the surface; to the myriad of beautiful feathery waterfowl gliding gracefully atop the still mirror of the lake, spring is a magical time to witness the arrival of so many ‘neighbors’ to our exquisite ecosystem. It is in this gloriously tranquil interim, just as the lake has melted, yet before fishing season has opened, that you might catch a haunting howl on the breeze…or better yet a glimpse of the gorgeously black-and-white-checkered yodeler, perusing the lake for a fishy bite. Have you ever heard a bird wail like a wolf, laugh like a lunatic? Well, I suppose I’ve given the mystery away now. I am indeed speaking of the Common Loon…not your eccentric neighbor, but rather the elusive, private, rare, shadow of a presence for whom our lake is named.

Loons at Loon Lake?

Despite the namesake of our lake and town, Loons are actually a rare sighting these days for most folks around Loon Lake. Chuck Schilling, a tireless volunteer with the Loon Lake Loon Association (LLLA) — a local conservation and community-building group responsible for our annual Loonsday fun walk and much more — lamented recently that there has been a drop in the number of Loon sightings here at the lake in recent years, due to increased high-speed boat traffic and shoreline development, diminishing wetland habitat, and lake water quality issues. Ginger Gumm-Poleschook and Daniel Poleschook, Jr., both Adjunct Scientists for the Biodiversity Research Institute, and passionate Loon conservationists shared that “though historical documents housed at the Loon Lake Historical Schoolhouse first officially record nesting Loons here on Loon Lake in 1881, Loon Lake does not currently have any nesting pairs. Those lucky enough to spot a Loon on Loon Lake are being treated by migrating visitors, usually in the spring or fall, whom have stopped by for a rest and bite to eat. In the spring, Loon visitors to our lake are on their way to their summer breeding grounds further north in Alaska and Canada. In the fall, they are coast-bound, to enjoy winter life and fishing in the Pacific or Puget Sound; while others may winter on the Columbia River.”

Have you heard the call of the Loon?

Perhaps you’ll hear the Loons before you see them! Keep your ears open when the lake is quiet, and listen for what sounds like the call of the wild. Take a moment to search online for recordings of the call of the Loon, and you’ll be treated to quite a song…a song that reaches far into the depths of your primal psyche…a song the reverberates through every fiber of your being…a song that recalls another distant time, and seems to shine a light on aspects nearly forgotten. The song is comprised of four distinct calls Loons use to communicate with their families and other Loons: the tremolo, wail, yodel, and hoot.

The tremolo is also known as the “crazy laugh,” but it’s really not so funny.  It is used to signal alarm, distress, and even the loss of a chick. Sometimes a tremolo will cut through the night, as a Loon vocally advertises and defends its territory.

The wail sounds much like a wolf’s howl.  It is used frequently during social interactions between Loons and may be used to regain contact with a mate during night chorusing and in answering other Loon tremolos.

The yodel is given only by the male.  It is a long, rising call with repetitive notes, and can last up to six seconds.  It is used by the male to defend his territory. Studies of recordings have shown that the yodel is different for each Loon and can be used to identify individual Loons.

The hoot is a one-note call that sounds more like “hot.”  It is mainly used by family members to locate each other and check on their well-being.

Loon Lake Loon Association (LLLA) President Joan Easley, who has devoted much of her life to the protection and conservation of our lake ecosystem shared, “When the Loons call, I can hear them early in the morning, while I’m still in bed. The call makes me tingle, pulls me into a whole different world. And seeing a Loon on the lake…it makes my heart stop. They absolutely take my breath away.”

Do you know how to spot a Loon?

Chances are you’ve seen a number of signs and knick-knacks around our lake community featuring the image of our lovely namesake. The Common Loon is a large, goose-sized diving bird with a long body that rides low in the water. An adult is 2-3 feet long, weighs 8-12 pounds and has a wing span of 4-5 feet. The Common Loon in its breeding plumage is stunning, with a black-and-white-checkered back, iridescent black head, black bill, red eyes, a prominent white “necklace” marking around the neck, and a much smaller white “chinstrap” marking the throat.  The white feathers of the belly and wing linings are present year-round. In its winter plumage, the Common Loon is gray above with a white breast, belly and wing linings, much like juvenile Loons. Their eyes are deep red during the winter. Common Loons have 1-2 chicks that change in color from almost black to light brown to grey as they grow.

Loons can fly at speeds approaching 100 mph, and can dive up to 200 feet deep in pursuit of a meal! Loons shoot through the water like a torpedo, propelled by powerful thrusts of their webbed feet located near the rear of their bodies. When a fish changes direction, loons can execute an abrupt flip-turn that would awe even the most accomplished swimmer: they extend one foot laterally as a pivot brake and kick with the opposite foot to turn 180 degrees in a fraction of a second!  Although their diet includes crayfish, frogs and leeches; minnows and small fish are the most common prey. Loons will spend almost all of their time on the water, going ashore only for mating and incubating eggs, and preferring deep water for safety. Loons generally mate for life and produce 1 to 2 eggs each season. Common Loons can live for an amazing 20 – 30 years, and are reported to have a good, long memory.

Why are Loons important?

Scientists consider Loons excellent indicators of water quality, as they require crystal-clear lakes (which makes it easier for them to see prey underwater) with abundant populations of small fish. Lakes with coves, islands, and wetlands are preferred as they provide cover from predators while resting and nesting. They also require lakes with enough surface area for their flapping-and-running takeoffs across the water. Declining Loon sightings and shortened visits here at Loon Lake, as well as across Washington state, have led the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to declare the Common Loon as a “State Sensitive Species.” WDFW further explains that “State Sensitive status is warranted because the Common Loon is a rare breeding species and vulnerable to a number of threats. Loons require special management to breed in proximity to humans, and they are likely to become endangered or threatened without continued cooperative management and removal of threats.”

What would Loon Lake be without the presence of Loons?

How can you engage and help?

As neighbors, we all have an important role to play in the protection, preservation, and conservation of our beautiful, yet presently strained, lake ecosystem. The enjoyment of the lake for current and future generations, as well as our property values, depend on the decisions we make today.

Loons are sensitive creatures that prefer a great deal of space and seclusion from we humans. Though we live on a relatively small lake, by following the below tips, you can gain wonderful insights into Loons’ daily lives, without deterring their visits here to our lake.

You can observe fascinating behaviors by maintaining a respectful distance and allowing Loons to focus on taking care of themselves and their chicks. Use binoculars to observe Loons without getting too close and causing them to swim away.

Boat slowly in the vicinity of Loons and stop at least 150 feet away. Loons may come closer or they may move away; please let them decide how close they wish to be, and please don’t pursue a Loon or Loon family for a closer view. Sadly, in the spring of 2018 on our very own Loon Lake, we had an incident of a boater and water-skier running over and killing a Loon. WDFW was brought in to investigate. There is a $2,500 fine for anyone observed killing Common Loons, due to their status as a “State Sensitive Species.” If you witness such an act, take a photo and try to locate the body; and call the WDFW immediately to report by dialing 911 for in-progress and emergency situations, or 1-877-933-9847 for non-emergency violations.

If a Loon begins to vocalize or posture in your direction, please move away immediately, and allow the Loon to resume its normal behavior.

Avoid using lead fishing tackle which poisons the lake, fish, birds, and humans too! There are a number of lead-free alternatives available at most outdoor retailers.

Pack it in, Pack it out: This includes fishing tackle like hooks, nets, and lines that can easily entangle, injure, and kill all forms of wildlife on the lake, including Loon visitors. Fishing hooks can also lodge in both little and big human feet—injuries we can easily avoid with good, neighborly stewardship.

Shoreline development has expanded, increasing the amount of impermeable surfaces and run-off into the lake. Avoid using fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, harsh chemicals, and even open-pit campfires around the shoreline—all which have been shown in recent area assessments to be negatively impacting the lake.

Promote the protection and conservation of wetland areas, which are so critical to the overall health of the lake. Local organizations like the Loon Lake Loon Association (loons.org) and Loon Lake Land Conservancy (loonlakelandconservancy.wordpress.com) provide a wealth of information to support sustainable decision-making and property ownership around the lake. Both organizations are also actively welcoming new volunteers to their friendly gatherings and service projects.

Did you catch a glimpse of a beautiful Loon on the lake? Be a part of the conservation, research, and education efforts to support Loons! Report your sightings with behavioral details, along with the location, time, and date to Daniel Poleschook, Jr. and Ginger Gumm-Poleschook, who are gathering data as part of the Washington Common Loon Research Project, with the Biodiversity Research Institute.

Phone: 509-939-2748 / E-mail: Daniel.Poleschook@gmail.com

 

What would our lake be like in the absence of fish, birds, and turtles…deer, moose, and bear? Could we still enjoy a dead and poisoned lake, without the poison seeping somehow into us? Environmental contamination and degradation draws no lines, knows no bounds when it comes to human (and others’) health. As our human population and impact here on our beautiful planet continues to exponentially expand, it is up to each of us to pause, take the time to educate ourselves, and find a better way together. We cannot separate ourselves from our mother — nature that is– for we too are of and one with the wild. To lose the privilege of hearing the call of the Loon here at Loon Lake –and our very own front-row seat to the glorious chorus of the wild — is something we can never afford to allow.

Resources

Check out these great resources online to continue learning about the Common Loon:

The Loon Lake Loon Association, Loon Lake, WA: www.loons.org

The Loon Preservation Committee, Moultonborough, NH: www.loon.org

Washington State Status Report for the Common Loon, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW): wdfw.wa.gov/publications/00341/

Conserving Common Loons by Managing Use of Lead Fishing Tackle, WDFW: wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/loons/

Cornell Lab of Ornithology Loon Guide: www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Loon

Biodiversity Research Institute: www.briloon.org