Allan Bell’s Birch Bark Nature Notes revisited
What one sound makes you feel you REALLY ARE in the wilderness? Could it be that laugh, tremolo, yodel or wail of the loon? If your answer is yes, you join countless others who are thrilled by that haunting sound, hard to describe, like no other.
Perhaps you have noticed the loon is almost always the first bird shown in a bird book. Birds are usually arranged in the order in which they evolved. The loon’s ancestry goes back about a hundred million years, much longer than any other North American bird.
Wisconsin’s loon is called the common loon. The name has nothing to do with their numbers or appearance. The loon population in Wisconsin is concentrated in the northern counties and probably numbers only about 2,000. It is a large bird, about 25 inches tall, with a wing span of five feet, weighing from eight to 11 pounds.
Striking black and white checkered plumage, a striped necklace, red eyes, greenish-black head and long tapered beak make it easy to identify. The powerful wings propel the streamlined body through the water, almost like flying as they search for minnows. Dense bones allow them to dive to depths of 200 feet and they can stay submerged for five to 10 minutes.
This can be a disadvantage when it comes to taking off from the water. They appear to run across the water as they attempt to become airborne, requiring from one-eighth to one-quarter of a mile to finally make it. Last November during migration, at least 15 loons crash-landed on roads and fields in Lincoln County.
Their legs are set so far back on their sleek bodies that they are practically unable to walk on land. This is one of the reasons they build their nests within inches of the water. Nesting is often done on islands to lessen the danger from predators like raccoons and skunks.
Motorboat wakes, water skier waves and fluctuating water levels can flood and destroy these nests. Two greenish-brown eggs with black splotches are laid. The eggs are about twice the size of chicken eggs. The incubation period is 29 days, with the Memorial Day holiday and its added boating, fishing and congestion falling during this critical time. If the birds are frightened off, the eggs may cool and the hatch may be lost.
It is during this incubation period that the “penguin dance,” a wildly thrashing display of beating wings and standing on the water, is seen. Anyone observing this is requested to leave the area immediately, as eggs will be exposed to predators or they will cool for too long. About half of the time, both eggs do not hatch.
The second day the baby chicks can swim and dive. For the first few weeks the young loons spend much of the time on the backs of their parents. Muskies, snapping turtles, ospreys, eagles and hawks are all enemies. The young grow fast and at about three months fly to find lakes of their own.
Loons feed on small fish, frogs, mussels, leeches and aquatic insects. And in large quantities. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that most lakes only have one pair.
Along with the loss of suitable nesting habitat looms the threat of acid rain. The first thing to fail in acidic waters is the aquatic life on which small minnows and fish feed. No minnows, no loons, ospreys, eagles.
Project Loon Watch is a volunteer effort to check loon population and reproduction, conduct research and keep the public informed of the progress being made in awareness of the loon’s struggle for survival. Would you like to help?
Let’s keep that magic music quavering over the water! It’s good for your soul, and mine!
Late nature writer Allan Bell wrote this Birch Bark Nature Notes column for the Tomahawk Leader back on Sept. 7, 1983. In revisiting some of his vast knowledge into our natural world, the Tomahawk Historical Society invites the public to stop by the Allan Bell Memorial Nature Trail located at the Tomahawk High School parking lot. The mile-long looping trail includes interpretive signs created by students and staff from the school that tell about nature and wildlife that can be seen along the route.