What are the loons doing? We’ve got answers

A few years back, a BDN colleague who shall remain nameless (for the next few sentences) told me a story that sounded a bit unbelievable.

Loons were herding up … or flocking up … or forming up for battle (or something like that), and she’d spotted 13 of them on her favorite lake, all heading the same direction.

I promptly dismissed the report and accused my BDN colleague of spending a bit too much time comparing the relative strengths of coffee brandy brands … or something like that.

Nine loons swim across Silver Lake in Lee on Aug. 10. (BDN photo by Shelley Sund)

You see, at that point, I’d never heard of such a thing, except for the time my mom swore she saw 19 of them at Beech Hill Pond. Sorry mom. I love you, but I never really bought into that tale (though I never would have accused you of getting liquored up on coffee brandy). Instead, I figured you were trying to put one over on me to get even for all the times you had to rescue me from the spring mud when I’d try my annual “Let’s see if I can run across the garden this year” exhibition of extreme speed and agility.

Never did get more than four steps into the garden. As it turns out, I was neither extremely speedy or extremely agile. And you were always there to hoist me to safety (and give me a little well-deserved hell).

What I’m trying to say, I guess, is this: “Now, I believe you, Mom.”

And (reluctantly), what I’m trying to say is, “Now I believe you, BDN colleague Shelley Sund.”

Of course, the reason I’m writing this column is, after several years and several similar reports of strange loon doings, I finally received photographic proof of the synchronized swimming exploits of our Maine loons, courtesy of … um … BDN colleague Shelley Sund.

After razzing her quite harshly after her earlier report of the 13-loon salute, I’m surprised she even talks to me any more. Seems as if I must be more charming than I thought … or seems as if most of the people I’ve razzed have been waiting for years to return the favor.

Shelley, always the helpful sort, promptly posted her photo on Facebook, tagged it with my name (which, for the 27 non-Facebook-users in America, roughly means that she stuck out her tongue at me and went “na na na-nah-nahhhhh!” as loud as she could).

And, truth be told, I’ve been receiving all kinds of ominous reports about loons recently. OK. I received just one. But it confirmed Sund’s report, and her photographic proof. (At this point, it’s important to mention that Sund is a graphic artist with an astonishing talent for manipulating photos with PhotoShop. I’m not making accusations here. Just pointing out a fact. Take it as you will … or, as I like to say, “na na na-nah-nahhhhh!” to you, too).

Honestly, though, I knew that even though I’d never seen the phenomenon myself, the chances of three separate Mainers all being hopped up on coffee brandy at the same time was … well … maybe that’s not the best example to use.

Let’s just say that I wanted some professional help. Not the kind I probably need, but professional help, nonetheless.

So I called Danielle D’Auria, who is a wildlife biologist who works for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and does a lot of work with loons.

Among my questions for her: Were the loons practicing their synchronized swimming routines in honor of the summer Olympics? What do you call it when all these loons herd up … or flock up … or whatever? Are loons doing their large-scale congregating earlier this year, as one reader suspected, because of the hot and dry summer? And (most importantly, I figure), why do they do it at all?

D’Auria was, as always, very helpful. Here’s some of what she had to say in her email reply.

“Loons typically group up in late summer, and sometimes as early as July,” D’Auria wrote. “These groups first consist of non-territorial adults and unsuccessful breeders, and are later joined by successful breeders.”

There’s a joke here. I know there is. But I’m not going to be the one to equate loner-loser-loons with … I don’t know … a loony cult or something. I’ll leave that to you.

Back to the real, official information: “Think back to June — we had a lot of rain all at once and this may have caused many loon nests to fail,” D’Auria said, squashing my loner-loser-loon hypothesis all to bits and making me feel downright mean to have thought such a thing about the unsuccessful breeders.

“Usually, they would have to re-nest by early July in order to have enough time to pull off young successfully,” D’Auria wrote, explaining that it takes your average loon about 28 days to incubate an egg, and another six weeks or more with parents to survive “to fledge, which occurs at about 11 weeks.”

D’Auria said that if those unfortunate (see, I’m getting it!) unsuccessful breeders failed to re-nest (also dreadfully unfortunate, I figure), those birds may choose to flock up earlier than they would during a year in which they were tending nests or baby loons.

“As for unsuccessful breeders, the adults typically leave their territories before the juveniles, usually once the juveniles can feed on their own and fly,” D’Auria wrote.

The juveniles, D’Auria explained, are often late to leave, and stay on their natal lakes for quite some time, leaving just before ice-up.

“I am not sure WHY they group up like this except they are probably keying in on good feeding areas (that also may be sheltered),” D’Auria wrote. “Loons that are not attending chicks are less territorial at this point, so they may more readily accept others into their prized feeding area.”

And as for the reader who saw the loons early … and my entirely off-beat question about loons and synchronized swimming? D’Auria had those answers, too.

“If folks think they are seeing loon congregations earlier this year it could mean that more loon nests failed than in past years … which ultimately means there’s little hope for loons winning the gold in the 2012 Bird Olympics,” D’Auria wrote.

There’s always 2016, I figure.

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John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.