Métis Women's Circle
September 25, 2023
On our little lake, the loons arrive in the spring before the ice has completely melted. It is an annual event greatly anticipated by many in this small community of Lac Paul and someone undoubtedly posts an excited announcement that the loons are back! Once again we can look forward to being serenaded by the haunting loon calls and wail that reverberate around the lake.
Loons usually return to the same lake each year where they have previously established their territory. Although loons keep the same mate for many years they are not wedded. When two mature females arrive at the same lake they engage in a fierce competition of violent wing flapping and an aggressive (but amazing) on water chase called wing rowing which eventually drives one loon away. Have a look at this video clip of a loon wing rowing https://youtu.be/KUI_M4W-eWk. Once the partners are re-established the courtship begins.
With frequent and often violent summer storms, finding a suitable and safe nesting spot has become a challenge for loons as the male will often select a place on shore very near the water's edge which is vulnerable to flooding and washouts. A local ornithologist guided members of our community in the construction of a floating nest platform which the loons have happily adopted for the past six years.
The following text is from the entries of a "loon diary" I kept during the summer of 2022. I made observations of the loons, their nesting, the weather, and other creatures living at the lake. Enjoy.
April 24- loons are back! Still lots of ice on the lake. Didn't see the battle/chase this year. Maybe only a couple returned and there was no competition.
May 1- volunteers have installed the nesting platform. They have put it at my end of the lake again where there are fewer visitors on the water. I can see it clearly with my binoculars. They put the "keep out loon nesting" sign up. Hopefully paddlers will keep their distance.
May 25- a loon sat on the nest for an extended time today I thought that they had laid an egg or two. But no, after a while they both swam off. No egg.
May 26- I am out of town but someone has posted that the loon laid two eggs! June 3- back home and spent a good hour or so watching the nest. The loons changed guard and I saw one or two eggs. Hard to tell how many for certain.
June 4- the loons have left the nest? I can't see any eggs. One loon is very far from the nest, the other is just floating around the platform. What's going on?
June 5- new eggs? The loons are back brooding on the nest.(note: I subsequently learned that it is common behaviour for loons to leave the nest for a stretch, not going far, then hopping back on. There was no need for worry) While watching the nest I noticed a brown coloured critter, mink or weasel, running along the shore line behind the nest- lost sight of it when it ran into some brush.
June 6- loon nesting with beak open. Is it hot? Now is lying flat with its head on the nest in what is described as the attack position when defending a nest. I can't see any threat present. The mate just floated by. I don't know if I missed the exchange where one leaves and the other broods. It just gave a few hoots and was gone.
June 22- the eggs were hunted and destroyed in early June. I wonder if it was the critter I saw. I feared another failed season (last year one egg hatched but the hatchling died 3 days later… sad but apparently not uncommon) but the loons continued their pairing behaviour. I've been away for about a week and in that interval the loons have laid 2 more eggs for a second nest this season. (another loon observer reports that the eggs were laid June 20 so the countdown is on for a late hatch)
June 25- water levels are coming down after the flooding caused by the torrential rainfall on the 23rd. Loons okay, platform not submerged! Both loons were off the nest for a while and one has returned to continue brooding. This evening at 7:30 the lake is still with the slightest ripple. The sun is reflecting blindingly off the water's surface. The loon is nesting.
June 27- I don't know the loons well enough to distinguish the features that another resident has noticed between the male and the female (this resident does have an amazing camera and can really zoom in for some great photos). I don't know who is on the nest but the nesting behaviour seems consistent; sit, scan the area, shift, roll eggs, repeat. I wonder if the loon is lonely sitting on the nest hour after hour; always alert, looking out for danger. This evening is calm and I can hear the thrushes singing with their ethereal flute song. The kingfisher is chattering away. This is peace.
July 6- 16 days into nesting. I was away for 5 days and wondered if all was well with the nest. I am relieved to see that the loon is there on the nest. I suppose that loons don't have memories or things to think of while spending all these hours on the nest. I find it hard to imagine what I'd do having to sit for so long. The lake doesn't "feel" like early summer any more. The greens seem darker, the wind through the leaves sounds crisper, and everything has filled out.
July 8- I hurried down to the dock this afternoon because the loon was calling out in a panic and I wanted to see what was the trouble. Arriving, I saw no loon on the nest but one was circling around the platform, not too far away. Then I saw the problem - 2 fellows in a small fishing boat had passed too close to the nest and frightened the bird. As they approached my dock, I greeted them and asked if they hadn't noticed the "stay out" sign. They politely let me know that another resident had already spoken to them about it and they were on their way! Before the loon climbed back onto the nest I saw 2 big greeny/taupe eggs. Hopefully in another 10 days or so we'll have 2 baby loons. The loon is back on the nest and brooding "comfortably".
July 9- all quiet with the loons today. It is very zen to sit a watch the loon on the nest. Focusing on the nest, I can hear so many other lake creatures. There are fewer bullfrogs than in past years; herons must be feasting. Sometimes I think it is important to know the names of all the birds I hear so I go about consulting resources to learn them. Other times I just sit and appreciate their song. I do however challenge the notion that Blue Jays fall in the category of song bird! Will have to return up the hill soon. The sun is setting, it's getting cool and the mosquitos come out in droves. I wonder if the loon sleeps on the nest at night? Shift change; day creatures retire, night creatures come out.
July 11- peace and quiet is disturbed at the lake today by blasting for new house construction and the rock removal. Quite a different sound as compared to the small (3.0) earthquake of yesterday. The earthquake had a distinctive organic rumble. I think it is the male on the nest this morning as he is larger. Who knows? The bird seems nonplussed by the construction going on around the lake. The nesting loon must have felt the earthquake yesterday. This season's nest has experienced egg robbery, flooding, earthquake, blasting…what else? I watched the bird as the latest blast exploded - meh, no reaction visible. As the loon shifted position on the nest, it cried out the "where are you" call. I'll wait a few minutes to see if the other shows up.
July 12- almost mid-month and must be getting close to hatching time; it's about 28 days since the eggs were laid. Big rain again today and the loon sits through it all. It's difficult to come down to the dock quietly and today I disturbed a bird that looked like a peregrine falcon. It flew away as I arrived quite noisily. I tried to locate it in another tree but no luck. A turkey vulture is circling about. While scanning the water and the shore with my binoculars I spotted what looked like a turtle's head poking out of the water. Sure enough, it saw me and popped its head in and out of the water a number of times. Turtles are really amusing to watch. Goldfinches, kingfishers, jays, and other singers are filling the soundscape between the gusts of wind. A maman mallard flew by very closely overhead. I come to visit with the loon and get to experience so much more.
July 14- it is incredibly quiet and still tonight, so much so that I can hear the humming bird humming in the tree at about 10 metres away! The thrush is singing. The eastern kingbird is putting on a show tonight. It swoops and picks moths off the water's surface. It also picks off bugs in mid-air. There are two here tonight. Goldfinches chirp. A type of sparrow is digging in the mud at the base of the dock. What a song it has! Chickadees never fail to make an appearance. All the while the loon sits brooding. Folks say any day now we can hope to see the hatchlings.
July 15- Lots of action at the water this morning. I hurried down to the dock due to the loon "distress" calls. At first glance the nest was empty. I scanned the area for loons and hatchlings but saw none. Then I spied 2 loons quite far from the nest. Disappointed, I feared that the nest had been raided again. Then I saw a 3rd, 4th, ..6th loon! What a surprise. There was lots of commotion, flapping, calling, diving, and still the nest sat empty. The loons quickly swam around the bend and out of sight except for one who hung back. Still far away, it turned toward the nest then back and out around the bend. I looked toward the nest and, another surprise, there sat a loon brooding. Where it was hiding? I don't know as I saw no one when I scanned the nest area. All is calm now with some bullfrogs croaking and the usual chorus of songbirds filling the air. (note: I contacted the local ornithologist to find out about this unusual mid-season grouping of loons. He said it was probably a group of immature un-mated males who "raft" together from time to time. They land, cause a fuss and then leave.)
July 16- as I was about to leave the dock last night, I scanned the far shore hoping to catch a glimpse of the chattering kingfisher. But what a pleasure to capture a blue heron in flight, low above the water, heading toward the swampy end of the lake. I was able to track its flight and watch its choreographed landing procedures as it touched down. Shortly thereafter, it began to fish. One would not expect such lightning speed from a bird so big but wow, can it fish. There was no wind so I could hear its beak snapping once it caught a fish. The heron walked awkwardly along the shore, sometimes in water deep enough to reach its belly. It must be able to hear the fish as I saw it quickly swing its head around, change direction and gobble up a few prey. I was loath to leave but the failing light made visibility poor and the mosquito witching hour had begun.
July 17- went to the water early this morning to check on the status of the chicks- nothing yet. The loon is still sitting patiently. I did however see the group of loons again. I heard a yodel and turned to see who it came from and voilà, 5 loons floated into view. They were far from the nest so caused no panic there. They appeared to stay in a group, swimming, diving, and flapping. They all disappeared from view but shortly afterward, I heard the characteristic loud churning sound of a loon in flight. I looked up and saw only one loon calling out its flight call, the tremolo, as it left the lake. The water was so still; it looked like a mirror. It was easy to spot the turtles popping their necks in and out of the water.
July 18- was at the lake numerous times today, early to see if the eggs had hatched and then frequently once all the excitement started. A long series of distress calls brought a few loon watchers to our docks. The loon was off the nest and calling out. I kept hearing an odd sound like styrofoam squeaking and scanned the area to see where it was coming from. I located a large bird at the top of a tall dead tree and at first glance thought it was the osprey who had visited the lake just the other day. But looking more closely at the bird, I realized that only the head was white; it was a bald eagle! Now I understood the loon's panic. The eagle is a real threat to the loon nest, known to raid and kill the vulnerable hatchlings. Another smaller bird of prey, perhaps a cooper's hawk, was harassing the eagle for sitting too close to its nest and each time it flew at the eagle the eagle would "squeak". The loon would cry out each time the eagle vocalized. The eagle was perched a good distance away from the nest but with a clear line of sight to it. The loon returned to the nest and continued to cry out occasionally. Soon the loon partner swam onto the scene and floated at the base of the tree where the eagle was perched. It called out often, perhaps defending its territory and nest. The eagle stayed perched in the tree for hours and there were frequent alarm calls from the loons. As darkness fell the loon was still on the nest and the eagle appeared to be gone. It caused such a panic today. I hope it doesn't come back.
July 19- the nest was ravaged in the night- no eggs or hatchlings. Another season with no baby loons. Such a sad day but nature is unapologetic. The loons are off the platform and look to be going about doing loon business as usual- hard to tell. The nest platform will be put away until next year as it is too late in the season for a 3rd try at a successful nest.
It has been 4 years since the loons on Lac Paul have had a successful nest. This summer of 2023 the loons did not even make one nest. Perhaps the smoky air caused by the northern wild fires created an environment of insecurity and danger. There's always next year and we remain hopeful that we'll have the chance to watch a loon pair raise another chick or two.
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