Catching rides and eating fish
Minnesota's State Bird attracts photographers from all over to catch the young 'riders'
I am wrapping up my Loon photo tours for 2018. Dozens of photographers from around the world came to my home state of Minnesota, and joined me to photograph and learn about the life cycle and behaviors of this iconic bird of the Northwoods.
The Common Loon (Gavia immer) is one of five loon species found in the world. The others being Red-throated Loon, Black-throated Loon, Pacific Loon and Yellow-billed Loon. In other parts of the world, the Common Loon is known as the Great Northern Diver.
The common name "loon" origins are not very clear. The word Loon seems like a very strange word, and to my ear, doesn't have any specific origin. It appears that it comes from the old Scandinavian word lom, meaning "lame" or clumsy or awkward when walking on land. This describes these birds perfectly. Their legs are positioned so far back on their bodies, and also off to the sides of the bodies, that they are unable to walk upright on land. Their chest remains on the ground and they push themselves along with their legs, much like a wheelbarrow without the wheel.
The association between the name loon and loony or being crazy or insane seems to have come along much later. It might be a chicken and egg thing.
The adult Loons are rather large birds measuring over three feet from beak to tail. The breeding adults have a smart combination of black and white plumage. The head is completely black, but when viewed in bright sunlight, it has a green or blue sheen. Not many birds that have black feathers like that are also iridescent.
Often, when out on my boat photographing the Loons, the adults are catching tiny fish or aquatic insects to feed their chicks. What always amazes everyone, along with myself, is how fast these large birds can swim underwater. After all, when you think about it, they need to be able to catch tiny fish underwater. Try it yourself sometime, and you will have a better appreciation for how remarkable this is. They have to swim faster than a fish, and also be able to turn on a dime to continue pursuing the prey.
We often see them zipping about underwater at incredibly high speeds. When chasing fish in shallow water, you can actually see a bow wave on the surface of the water out in front of the Loon as it zips through the water. Then all of a sudden, they pop to the water's surface with a tiny fish held tightly in their large black bill, and start swimming towards their babies.
The parents show great care when feeding their babies. The adults are massive in comparison to the tiny chicks. The parents offer the tiny fish to the young, and almost always the young drops the fish. The adult quickly picks up the fish and tries again. The young drops it again, and this goes on for many, many tries until finally the chick eats. This kind of feeding goes on for the first week or so of life. Then the babies start to get the hang of it and snatch up the offerings and gobble them down quickly.
Baby Loons are well-known for riding on the backs of the parents. In fact, this is what the photographers come to see and capture images of this behavior. The young are only small enough to ride for about ten days, after which time they try to ride but are unable.
The desire for the young to ride on the adult's back is so strong that sometimes it doesn't matter where or what the parents are doing. The young "must" ride. For example, when the parents are fishing the babies will climb up on the back of the parents just before the adult dives underwater. If the young are under the wing, it usually takes a few moments before the baby pops up to the surface. Or if the young are riding, and the adult wants to stretch their wings, which they often do, the adult rises up in the water to shake their wings and the baby goes tumbling off the back down into the water.
One time, a female climbed up on a tiny cattail island with the babies in hot pursuit. When she got settled on the island, one of the babies had to climb on the back of the resting mother, even though they weren't in the water. The other youngster snuggled up close to the mother's chest. These are the sweet and tender moments that I enjoy the most when documenting these amazing birds. Until next time…
Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed on www.facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be reached at www.naturesmart.com.
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