Junior Naturalist: What’s black and white all over (with a spot of red)?

Last night we went to bed to the sound of loons out on the big lake. This morning, Ursula noticed two of the big black-and-white birds swimming near our dock. From our vantage point, we could even see them underwater when they dove. We weren’t close enough to know if they caught any fish or crayfish, but we saw the bands on their legs when they caught the light.

The loons of Squam Lake, N.H., are the most studied loon population anywhere in the United States. Every summer a loon biologist follows loons around the 7,000-acre lake as they pair up and select nesting sites. About 10 pairs will actually nest; a smaller number will hatch one or two eggs, and — if they can protect the babies from powerboats, snapping turtles, and intruder loons — raise their chicks. This summer’s loon biologist has spent up to 16 hours a day on the water, taking notes, collecting egg shells, talking to loon volunteers, and simply watching the birds.

With their distinctive black-and-white checked plumage and their haunting calls, loons are an emblem of wild northern lakes. They return to the same lakes over and over again, flying in from saltwater wintering grounds as soon as the ice goes out in the spring. Loons are depicted on the Maine license plate and on one-dollar bills and coins in Canada, which are called “loonies.”

More loon facts:
• We say the loon's eyes are red even though only the iris is actually red. Underwater the eye looks black, which camouflages it against the loon's dark head and may keep a fish from knowing that it's the loon's next meal. Scientists wonder if the loon's red eyes have evolved partly to be “bedroom eyes” during breeding season.
• Loons are true water birds, coming up on land only to nest. Their big webbed feet are set so far back on their bodies that they are basically unable to walk on land. They build their nests right next to the water and must struggle to get on and off the nest.
• Unlike other marine birds, loons have dense bones that make it possible for them to dive as deep as 200 feet. They can stay underwater as long as 10 minutes.
• Loons have been called “flying submarines.” Their wings seem too short to allow them to fly, and they need a long (watery) runway, but once airborne, they can reach speeds up to 80 mph.
• During the summer breeding season, you can hear four loon calls: the wail, the tremolo, the yodel, and the hoot. (Listen to the calls and read their descriptions here.)

The Loon Preservation Committee (LPC) funds the work of the loon biologists on Squam Lake and on many other lakes in New Hampshire. This year, the LPC joined with the Squam Lakes Science Center to give educational “loon cruises” with the loon biologist on Friday afternoons. The last cruise for the 2009 season is on August 21.

Photo credit Dan Poleschook and Ginger Gumm.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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