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Common Loon. One of my favorite birds. Growing up, I had no idea they could be found in Washington. I thought they lived in places like Minnesota or New England or Canada. I was well past middle age when I saw, and heard, my first loons in the Okanogan Highlands. It’s one of the reasons we keep going back there, year after year. Where else can we listen to loons as we sit around the campfire or hear them at first light or watch them socialize with each and raise their youngsters on the clear cool water? Loons are remarkable birds. You can learn more about ‘the spirit of the north’ here.

It is worthwhile to click through all of these images and see some interesting loon behaviour. They clearly are very social, flying from one lake to another to ‘visit’ with the resident loons. They struggle to raise their young with the ever-present threat from hungry eagles also raising youngsters. The family we watched each day had two young the week before we arrived but only one when we were there. And that splashing! I don’t know what that’s all about. Loons often just tip over gently into the water, hardly leaving more than a ripple. Those four loons appeared to be fishing together and did this repeatedly while we watched for an hour or more. Others reported seeing the same activity.

These photos are from our recent camping trip. I love to watch and photograph birds from my kayak. Some birds, like Common Loons, will approach a boat if it is quiet and this family did just that. If I was close to the birds, I’d sit quietly in the boat and hope that they would come closer. They didn’t always. Early mornings and evenings were best. It was busier around the lake during the day and the birds tried to keep to themselves. The first day we saw the baby loons, they were not yet diving but by the time we left, they were diving and preening and acting like their parents. The youngsters have big feet, like a lab puppy and I imagine someone asking the parents, ‘do you think they will ever grow into those feet?’ Well, people still ask me that about Sky and she’s almost six years old, so no.

At another lake, I was able to look down at the loons and see them swimming underwater. They strictly used their feet for propulsion. I also observed this from my boat but they were too close for photos!

I know, this is a lot of photos but the birds are so beautiful.

Common Loons are not so common in Washington, especially nesting Common Loons. Apparently they used to be common all over the west but not so much anymore. Threats to loons include loss of habitat, predators and discarded fishing tackle. Fishing line, hooks and lead weights are all potentially damaging or fatal to loons and other water birds such as Trumpeter Swans.

At Lost Lake, there is a pair of Common Loons that have nested in the same place for many years. They arrive in the spring from their wintering grounds and take up residence. Thirty days later, the eggs – there may be one or two – hatch and the tiny balls of black fluff are immediately paddling around the lake with their parents. They may also ride on the backs of the parent birds. Both parents care for the birds – feeding and protecting them from predators and gradually teaching them to forage for fish on their own. It takes much of the summer for the birds to fledge and be ready to migrate.

Due to shortage of good nesting areas, pairs in Washington are helped with the supplementation of extra four-inch fish added to nesting lakes by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Also, sticks are placed around and leaning over the nest to protect it from avian predators such as Bald Eagles. Most loons are banded for further study. When the young are nearly grown, researchers will attempt to net them so they may also be banded. The male of this pair has always eluded capture and consequently has never been banded.

This male arrived at Lost Lake this spring with fishing line hanging out of his mouth. It is presumed that there is a hook embedded in his tongue or cheek – probably acquired when the bird ate a fish that had escaped an angler with the tackle in its mouth. You can clearly see the fishing line in the images I made on Wednesday with a loop of it hanging out one side of his mouth. On Friday, it appeared that he had both ends of the line in his mouth and it’s less easy to observe.

Wednesday I inadvertently, paddled right up to the nest. I did not know it was at the edge of the reeds. I was able to see the two dark eggs and quickly moved away in hopes of lessening any disturbance to the birds. Later in the day, we walked on the road on the east side of the lake where we had a clear view of the female on the nest. Friday when I was out on my boat I saw that the eggs had hatched and the two loonlings were out and about with their mother! It was very exciting for me.

All of these images were made with a 600 mm equivalent lens and I did my best to minimize disturbance to the loons.

I have been visiting Lost Lake for many years and always it is the Common Loons that fill me with awe. Loons do not find much good breeding habitat in Washington and this lake has been a draw for one pair for as long as I’ve been visiting. Every year there is a nest and it has occasionally failed. Sometimes Bald Eagles snatch the young birds when they are out of the nest but still small. Last year the eagles got one. This year it looks like both young birds have survived, so far. They are growing fast with a diet of fish provided by their parents. They need to grow fast in order to migrate to bigger water for the long cold winter.

I photographed these birds from my boat, not paddling too close but waiting for the birds to get closer to me as I drifted. These birds are often observed from boats and the shore. They are also well-studied with researchers banding the young birds as soon as they are old enough.

 

 

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