Loons

Articles bellow are by Dr. Charles (Woody) Woods, a Seymour Lake resident.  Also see two great videos about loons at the bottom of the page.

FAQs About Loons by Woody Woods From the  May 2020 Newsletter

It’s mid-April on the lake and already the magical call of the loon has begun to be heard. For myself, hearing this call has seemed reassuring in these uncertain times. SLA has previously shared a link to a presentation on loons by Eric Hanson, Loon Biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. If you haven’t had the time to watch that presentation, here are some interesting loon facts from Eric’s presentation. It is my sincere hope that all our SLA members, friends and neighbors will be able to return to Seymour this summer to enjoy and be reassured by this special sound. I’ll begin with what is likely the most common question about our friend the loon!

Is it true that loons mate forever? This could happen, however, because one partner may die or an “intruder loon” may take over the partner they typically have several mates over their lifetimes. Intruder loons may be either male or female but are more typically male – often 5-10 year olds who were previously non-breeders due to their youth. The intruder usually attacks in the spring. If there is a chick, the intruder may kill the chick either intentionally or unintentionally. During the intrusion battle, the other mate does not get involved but accepts the winner as their mate. The “loser” loon will typically retreat to a nearby lake.

How long do loons live? Loons commonly live for 20 years or more. The males have a higher mortality rate. The oldest recorded loon of those studied is 35 years.

What do loons eat? They primarily eat small 2-4” fish and their favorite is perch. In winter they’ll eat crabs and crayfish.

What type of lake do nesting loons prefer? Loons prefer to nest on an island or small cove and on an undisturbed, not too steep weedy shoreline. 70-100 acres is a good “territory size” for a pair to control. If a large lake with several pairs, it is important that they have distinct territories so that the pairs don’t see each other (such as Seymour’s two legs). Rocky shorelines are undesirable (which is why no pair has ever successfully nested on Willoughby Lake).

When do loons nest? Nesting begins in early to mid May and the eggs will hatch at the end of June to mid-July. They will usually lay two eggs which will hatch within 24-48 hours of each other. This sequential hatching gives the first chick (and the parents!) a head start. Loons will re-nest if the first nest fails. The male and female will share incubation of the eggs. Chicks will leave the nest within 12 hours of hatching. Once hatched the loons no longer use the nest which is when the protective signs can be taken down. Male loons don’t typically begin breeding until they are 6-7 years old and females until 7-8 years old. Until they mate and begin breeding these loons are “single” or non-breeders.

What are the different calls and what do they mean? The yodel – a crescendo with up and down repeated notes – is only made by the male and is a territorial call. It is used to ward off intruders and avoid fighting. Every male has a unique yodel that other loons will recognize. The wail is an identification call that says “where are you” or “who are you” and is made mostly at night when they can’t see each other. The tremolo call says “something’s up” and can be because they are upset or excited. The hoot is a call for close communication, usually within a family group.

Loons on a single large lake with multiple territories or neighboring lakes listen to each other’s calls. They know each other and what’s happening in the other territories/lakes!.

Is it possible to tell a male loon from a female while on the water? If they are travelling as a pair, the larger loon is typically the male. Also, only males make the yodel call.

What is the purpose of the loon’s preening? Preening is critical to loons. They must do it every 2-3 hours. It involves putting oil that comes from a gland in their rear end into their feathers to provide waterproofing. Without this waterproof layer they would become like a wet log!

Do chicks born on a lake return to that lake as adults? No but when they mate they will typically choose a lake that is similar in size and Ph to the lake they were born on. Males will chose a lake within 20 miles of the lake they were born on but females are less likely to settle that close to where they were born.

I must end this article with a huge thanks to those dedicated volunteers on Seymour who have worked with Eric Hanson over the years to encourage nesting and restore the loon population – Charles “Woody” Woods, Denis Fortin, Dave and Bonnie Potter and the Jenness family

Where do our loons migrate to in the winter months? Most of our loons migrate to the coast, primarily Cape Cod or Nantucket. A migrating loon is generally a solitary traveler but may form groups when they land to rest and feed. While in flight they average 60-75 mph for up to 12 hours per day! The parents will leave in October and any chicks that survived will leave in late October or early November. You may see their winter plumage begin to emerge before they head off.

Update About Loons by Woody at the SLA 2015 Annual Meeting

Common Loons on Seymour Lake

Common  Loons  on Seymour Lake are one of the great pleasures we all share.  Loons arrive early in the spring, usually just after large areas of open water appear.  They continue to reside on Seymour well into the fall, sometimes up until close to when the lake begins to freeze in early December.  Their winter venue is the ocean on which they sit until spring when they return here and other lakes in New England. Day and night we are aware of their presence.  They are our call of the wild, “The Spirit of Northern Waters” to Native Americans.  In recent years they have commonly nested in the cove near the outlet.  The sight of a pair of loons with two fluffy young chicks is one that most of us have seen, and the topic of many a great photograph.

We have all come to take the presence of loons on Seymour as a sure thing, but it has not always been so.  As recently as 1983, when loons began to be regularly counted in the state, only 29 loons were counted state wide, and there were only 8 breeding pairs.  Many long-time Seymour residents, who remember back 30 years or so, do not remember loons on Seymour.  Their “recovery” is one of the great conservation stories in Vermont and all of New England.  Today we can be confident that loons will nest on Seymour, and state wide in 2014 there were 301 adults and 66 chicks reported during the July LoonWatch.

But a successful nesting is not always insured.  Many things can go wrong.  In recent years volunteers have insured that there is a safe nesting platform floating in the cove near Camp Winape, and that it is covered with vegetation and surrounded with attractive protective signs.  This protects nesting loons and newly hatched chicks from high water, predators and intruders.  Not long ago nests on the shore were often flooded out by rising lake levels, or exposed to predation from raccoons.  But even this special program of safe floating nest platforms and warning signs does not insure success.  In an average year as many as 25 percent of nests will  not be successful, or hatched chicks will be lost to predators such as bald eagles, large fish or intruder loons.  Or as was the case on Seymour in 2014, the parents just never completed the incubation period and abandoned the nest.  It is even possible to love loons too much, as when kayaks or canoes move too close to nests and can cause nest abandonment.  Water skiers and fast boats and jet skis getting too close to where loons are nesting or floating with their young chicks can also cause loss of young chicks.  Loons incubate their eggs for 27-30 days.  Young loons leave their nest on the first day after hatching and often float close to the adults (which are hard to tell apart).  They are not able to fly until they are 11 weeks old (on Seymour Lake that would be early October).

Seymour Lake loons are watched over carefully by a number of volunteers, and each year in July there is a state wide Loon Watch.  That event takes place on the third Saturday in July each year (July 16, 2015).  The results for Seymour Lake are usually discussed at the annual meeting of the Seymour Lake Association.   In 2014 there were 7 adult loons counted (no chicks). In 2013 there were 10 adult loons (no chicks).  In 2012 there were 9 adult loons and 2 chicks.  So the story of loons is not without concern.  We have not had a successful chick event in two years, and we are all looking forward to 2015 with guarded optimism.

Loons look and act like ducks in many ways, but are far removed evolutionarily.  This deep diving bird evolved as long ago as 130 million years.  Unlike most birds, they have nearly solid bones, massive musculature and legs positioned far to the rear.  This makes it very easy for them to dive deeply and swiftly for fish, their main food, but also makes it very hard for them to take off from the water.  Loons need at least 30 yards of open water to take off by flapping their wings and running on the water surface.  Adult loons usually weigh about 10 pounds (up to 14) and are known to live up to 24 years.  Another interesting characteristic is their ability to control their buoyancy, and hence we see them high or low in the water.  Their calls are what most of us recognize on the lake, especially the wail, which loons use to know the location of other nearby loons.  Or when we are close to a loon (too close in the loons mind), there is the tremolo to announce their presence.  And at breeding time in May the male loon make a characteristic (and distinctive to each individual) yodel.  If you have a computer there are excellent YouTube videos helping one identify all of the vocalizations of loons.  One of the best is by Robert J. Lurtsema, whom many may remember from his days on the radio in Boston. 

Update About Loons by Woody at the SLA 2021 Annual Meeting

The loon story is good.  Bob Steenrod and I did a count last Saturday morning.  Denis Fortin also counted separately; Denis counted 10 loons and a moose.  Bob and I counted 18 loons (and 52 jet skis). The nesting pair which hang out near the loon platform did not nest, continuing the long absence of nesting loons.  The last successful nesting was a single chick, which survived for a spell before being killed and eaten by an eagle. So, there are many loons on Seymour.  And throughout Vermont loons are doing very well.  It is a great conservation success story.


Why are loons not nesting on Seymour.  It is a complicated situation.  Loons are very territorial.  The great success of the state-wide loon recovery program has created a situation where Seymour has an abundance of individual loons, which may reduce the chance of an individual pair nesting.  And Seymour is a busy lake, with few coves and backwater areas where loons can find isolated places to nest.

But Echo and Norton had very successful nesting.  And they don’t have as much boat traffic and very few if any jet skis.  They also have many fewer loons.  Seymour is a beautiful lake.  People love it.  Loons love it.  I don’t know what we can do to make our breeding pair love it enough to begin sitting on the nest and produce chicks.  But that is natural history.  Should that happen, we would all be worrying about how to keep the eagles from killing the chicks.  The eagle conservation program has also been a great success.  We are watching natural history at work on Seymour, and it is very exciting.

Learn More

Great Presentation by Eric Hanson – Loon Biologist for the Vermont Center for Ecostudies

Listen to Voices of the Loon

(www.youtube.com/watch?v=JWgwPb_uNaI)

Mother and Baby Loons