Something Wild
10:56 am
Thu February 9, 2012

Noisy Water Birds

Summer visitors to New Hampshire typically are eager to hear the call of a common loon, emblem of the wild and remote north woods.  Popular souvenirs to take home include coffee mugs, sweatshirts and jewelry—all with a loon motif.

In addition to their striking appearance, I suspect the fact that loons chorus at night adds greatly to their mystique.  Loons of winter don't get much attention, but scan coastal waters and chances are good you'll see a loon or two offshore.  New Hampshire's breeding loons don't migrate far.

Low and long on the water, they're recognizable more by their distinctive loon silhouette than by coloring.  Soon after the breeding season, adult loons molt into a very faded version of their bold summer plumage.  As they ride the waves and ocean's roll, they're a perfect match for the wintry gray backdrop of sea and sky.  Most young loons ride those waves their first two or three years before returning inland to freshwater lakes.

In contrast to their grace on and under water, loons are awkward on land.  The species name, “loon,” likely derives from the Old Norse word for “lame” or "clumsy" and refers to a loon’s lumbering gait on land.  With legs positioned far back for diving and swimming, loons do not operate well out of water.

Solitary by day, the loons of winter join together at night most likely for the increased vigilance and security that a group provides.  On the rare night when ocean is calm and quiet, you can hear the tremolo or wail that so evokes the summer world of pristine deep lakes and forest.

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