Loons on the Lakes

A couple of days ago, a friend phoned to tell me about a loon nest her daughter and young grandson discovered. The two had paddled their open-topped kayaks to a small island, where they planned to tie their boats to the shore and do some exploring on foot. As the boy nosed his boat up to the edge of the island, something burst out from the vegetation and landed on his kayak. It was a loon. Luckily, he had been sitting with his legs drawn up close to his body so the loon did not land on top of him. He was unhurt, and the loon did not appear to have been injured. Immediately, the loon slid off into the water, swam in a tight circle to face the intruder, and glared at him, warning him to clear out of there fast! Mother and son paddled away quickly, but they had been close enough to glimpse the loon’s nest, which contained two large brown speckled eggs.

Most years, loon chicks hatch around the Fourth of July, but heavy rains this spring raised the level of the lakes and flooded many nest sites. It’s possible this loon was unable to nest earlier because of high water, or may have lost a nest when it flooded. Our friends had visited this island before and had never seen a loon nest there, so this bird may have had to settle on a less desirable location for this nest.

Loons are true water birds. Strong legs, located far back on the body, enable them to swim underwater like a torpedo to catch fish, but make walking on land almost impossible. Nests are built on a low spot right at the edge of the shore where the adult, if threatened, can escape by sliding off directly into the water. When a chick hatches the parents take it into the water within about an hour, but if they are incubating a second egg, or if the weather is severe, they will take the new chick back to the nest temporarily to keep it warm and dry. After that, the chick will not touch land again for several years, until it is old enough to breed. On the water, very young chicks often climb onto the parent’s back or tuck under its wing to get warm, and for protection from predators. The parents feed tiny fish to their helpless, down-covered chicks, that soon gain enough weight and strength after a couple of weeks to dive a few inches and stay under a few seconds. For at least three months, even after the chicks are capable of feeding themselves, the parents will continue to look after them and feed them.

Raising young chicks on a busy lake requires loon parents to be highly alert, and to teach their youngsters to avoid danger. They must guard them from natural predators such as bald eagles, snapping turtles and very large fish. Motorboats, in which the operator may be pulling a water skier or a tube filled with children, can easily strike a loon or a chick if the operator is looking backward rather than forward. Blunt trauma from collisions with watercraft is a major cause of loon deaths in Maine. Even folks out for a quiet paddle in a canoe or kayak can stress a loon family by trying to get a close look, or by following slowly as the loons swim away. If a loon is stressed or distracted by a curious well-intentioned human, it may not notice predators or speeding boats. If a nest is discovered, and the adult feels threatened, it will slide into the water, leaving the unguarded eggs at risk.

Loons are excellent parents. Most of the time, they are capable of protecting their nest, but as my friend’s daughter and grandson discovered, humans can sometimes unwittingly endanger loons. They had no way of knowing they would disturb a nesting loon, since there had not been a nest there in the past, and because the nest was so well hidden, but since their accidental encounter with the loon they have not gone near the island. To protect the loon family, they are keeping the location of the island and the nest secret, and only watch from a distance through binoculars. After their potentially dangerous accidental encounter, this loon family is fortunate to have such caring neighbors.

Jean Preis is a resident of Bridgton.

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