Loon Family, Loon Festival

When we bought our house here on Orange Pond 13 years ago, motorboats buzzed circles around the shoreline on sunny summer weekends. Down at the public landing, which runs through our land, we filled trash bags with discarded bait containers, fouled fishing lines, broken bottles and plain old garbage.

At times, we worried that we weren’t really getting the front row seat to wild nature that we hoped this place might someday provide for our kids. We put up a sign at the landing introducing ourselves as the landowners. After that we saw less trash. A couple of years ago, the pond received an electric-motor-only designation. The lake quieted. Loons began to visit.

At first the big black-and-white diving birds came only to dine out on the trout that a New Hampshire Fish and Game truck dumps into the pond each spring. (Our neighbor, a hunter and savvy observer of wildlife, is convinced that loons actually follow the boxy “fish van” from lake to lake.) Then they seemed to use the pond as a stopover to and from their breeding territories in the spring and fall. We saw them make their characteristic bellyflops onto open water when the pond is still half iced over. Sometimes, they even graced us with their haunting wails and tremolos. Finally, we started seeing pairs together on the water, seeming to check out the neighborhood like newlyweds looking for a good place to raise a family.

This year, the pond apparently passed the test. Two loons settled down in May. They built a nest at the end of a marsh. Lucky for us, they were just close enough to our dock that we could check on them through binoculars, but not so close that our presence ruffled their feathers. Also lucky for us, Ursula and Virgil are old enough to be interested, too.

We watched them on the nest for a month, all the way through the Fourth of July weekend. Loons are water birds — they spend a good portion of their lives under water, catching fish — and we could see how ungainly they were on land every time they exchanged nest duties. Last Monday, we heard the loons calling and calling in a frenzy we hadn’t heard before. We hurried down to the dock and saw a little dark fluffball tumble from the nest to the water and immediately be folded under its mother’s protective wing. (Dad was still on the nest, making all the noise, as if to say, “We have a baby!”)

The second egg in the nest did not hatch, in spite of Dad’s efforts. Susie Burbidge, a field biologist from the Loon Preservation Committee who tracks loons in the western part of New Hampshire, explained to us that the biologists like to give loon eggs some extra days beyond 30, just to be sure.

On Friday, Ursula and I paddled out with her to take a look at the nest. It’s been a good season for “her” lakes — ours is one of several new ones in the area with nests and babies. After Susie had collected the egg from the nest (the Loon Preservation Committee will freeze it for later testing, to see if something inside went amiss), we floated for a while in the canoe, watching the loon family on the other side of the lake. The chick, a bigger fluffball now, rode on top of a parent’s back, then bobbed alongside, then followed in parental wake like a tiny water-skier. Ursula asked Susie what it was like to be a field biologist, nodding at Susie’s answers (yes, she spends a lot of time outside; yes, she’s been in other beautiful places; yes, she loves animals).

The Loon Preservation Committee understands the importance of raising new generations of loons, which are considered a threatened species in New Hampshire, and of raising new generations of human beings who care about loons and other wildlife. The nonprofit is hosting a family-friendly Loon Festival at its headquarters in Moultonborough, New Hampshire this Saturday, July 17, from 10 am to 2 pm.

Last summer I took Virgil, then 6, to the festival. He ate his fill at the cookout, spent an hour at the crafts table, got his face painted and balloons twisted into cool shapes, answered loon biology questions for the chance to dunk a field biologist, and didn’t want to leave when it was time to go. Neither of us knew that a year later, we’d be celebrating loons again — without even having to leave home.

Learn more

... Junior Naturalist: "What's black and white all over (with a spot of red)?"
... the Loon Preservation Committee's Loon Festival

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

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