Get to know the fascinating loons that live around here

  • By Sharon Wootton
  • Friday, October 18, 2013 1:43pm
  • Life

Loons have called to Steve Ellis since he was growing up in Alaska, where his family had a cabin on a lake.

“I could hear them make those wild, mysterious calls out on the lake,” Ellis said. “I have always found them to be fascinating.”

But it wasn’t until he married his wife, Martha, who was very interested in birds, that his interest took off. Birds are always high on the agenda on their long trips.

They added four birds to their life list on a trip to California: the California towhee, Nuttall’s woodpecker, oak titmouse and Lawrence’s goldfinch.

But he never forgot those mysterious calls.

The Coupeville residents lead field trips for the Whidbey Audubon Society and give talks on several natural history topics. They developed the Birds of Whidbey class.

They’ve also created a series featuring birds that fish for Sound Waters, the education event put on by Island County’s Beach Watchers program.

The first class was on loons.

He calls them the Fab Four of Puget Sound: common, red-throated, Pacific and yellow-billed, the last rarely sighted.

“You might see one or two yellow-billed in Dungeness Bay; otherwise it’s hit and miss. We see one on Whidbey every four or five years.”

Most of the Alaskan breeding population and about 18 percent of the global count lives within the Alaskan National Petroleum Reserve.

“Loons are so well-adapted,” Ellis said. “Their feet are far rearward so that they’re great swimmers, but they can’t walk. They’re really aquatic critters.

“They have denser bones than other diving birds so that helps them stay underwater longer. Air that passes through the lungs goes into balloonlike membranes that counteract the dense bones so that they can rise up.”

The Puget Sound common loons feed on sculpin. The red-throated and Pacific loons go after schooling fish. Deception Pass seems to be a favorite restaurant December through February, as thousands of them go after surf smelt that spawn on Deception Pass beaches, Ellis said.

While the smaller red-throated loon can take right off from the water, the larger loons need room to run on the water until they achieve enough speed to fly.

During migration, the Pacific loon, the most numerous in North America, flies south for the winter in large flocks; the common loon in ones and twos.

Here are a few interesting facts about loons:

  • A group of loons has been called an asylum, a cry, a loonery, and a raft.
  • They digest 10 to 20 pebbles because they don’t have teeth to chew the catch. They swallow the fish whole and the pebbles grind it up before it is digested or comes out the other end.
  • Loons eat a lot of their fish underwater, in part because they can quickly continue the hunt, particularly in a school of fish.
  • The common loon can dive up to 200 feet deep.
  • A loon can swim underwater very fast because it becomes streamlined when pressing its wings next to its body and powers with its feet.
  • Loons mate for life although if one dies, the survivor may mate again.
  • Loons incubate their eggs for almost a month with parents taking turns on the nest.
  • Although they are known for their distinctive call, loons also hoot and yodel.
  • There are relatively few common loons nesting on Washington’s lakes, but ingesting small lead fishing sinkers is a leading cause of death due to lead poisoning.
  • Common loons are long-lived and do not nest until at least 5 years old, and return to the same site each year. The nest is built within a few feet of the water’s edge.
  • Although they primarily eat fish, loons also will eat eels, dragonflies and dragonfly nymphs.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.

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