Looney Tunes

I had never seen a loon.

I’ve been regaled by tales of flocks of loons hanging out on Lake Chautauqua. They weren’t hanging when I was there. And the Cassadaga Lakes? I don’t doubt they might congregate there as well. Just not when I’m looking.

Yet when one came to visit me — in snowy mid-April — I certainly had no doubt what I was seeing. Some things require no confirmation.

The book I was given for a “life list” is blank when it comes to loons. I was rather surprised. Nope — none in the west days either. So a brand new experience.

I imagine the shape alone would be a giveaway with this bird: long and low in the water with a seriously pointed beak. Fortunately, breeding begins in March so the checkerboard back was in sight. A youngster or nonbreeding adult lacks the defined cross-banded white on its back.

“Generally uncommon,” Sibley says, pleasing me though this is by far the most commonly seen loon.

There are three others: the Yellow-billed is happiest in Alaskan waters while the Arctic Loon prefers to stay far north. The Red-throated Loon might venture down around here, frequently migrates in flocks and lacks that checkerboard. In their winter plumage there isn’t much difference among them though the Common Loon is considerably larger than the Arctic or Red-throated.

I’d love to hear its cry. (Why do I think of “On Golden Pond”?) Sorry, for it’s going to have to be a lot warmer — think above freezing — before I crack open a window again. By then the peepers might even dare try once more.

I gather the breeding urges determine the color, not the sex, for they are outwardly alike in appearance.

A reference book with which I am less familiar (possibly because its 1100-plus huge pages make it an effort to lift) suggests the word “loon” may come from an old Scandinavian name, “lom” which means a lame or clumsy person and refers to the birds’ clumsiness on shore where they come only to breed. “The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds by John K. Terres” tells me that loons were once believed to be related to grebes (who look rather similar but have a longer neck). Now they are known to not be related to any other living order of birds. Fossils of loons go back to the Paleocene, about 65 million years ago.

Loons are called “divers” in Europe, being among the most proficient at diving of all diving birds, known to go up to 240 feet down, but “tales of their remaining underwater for more than 5 minutes, and of swimming a half-mile while submerged should be regarded with suspicion.” Mine shows no interest in testing either record and, while diving occasionally, tends to mostly just float around in a small area. A duck or two might float in to check out this stranger and the beaver swam by close but mostly the loon just rests. On the third day it was joined by a cormorant.

Loons (and grebes) have flattened tarsi and legs set so far back on the body that walking is extraordinarily difficult and awkward. “The leg muscles, unlike those of any other birds, are part of their streamlined body mass. On land, loons can scarcely hold their bodies erect and shuffle along a few clumsy steps at a time, but on water they are powerful swimmers, and underwater, unlike members of the Auk Family, propel themselves by their feet alone and use their wings only for balancing or turning underwater.” They can increase their specific gravity by expelling air from their bodies and within their feathers, so that they can sink slowly and quietly below the surface, leaving scarcely a ripple.

With the exception of the red-throated loon, they cannot fly from land and, even in the water, need a long running start before they are airborne, but once aloft are swift, powerful fliers with speeds of 60 mph or more.

“On northern lakes where they nest in summer, loons utter long-drawn, wailing cries and screams at night which are blood-curdling to those people who have never heard them before; to others these cries are one of the wild musical sounds associated with the northern wilderness; the wild demonic ‘laughter’ of a loon has given rise to the expression ‘crazy as a loon.’ “

I am enjoying my visitor and hope it will hang around a bit longer. Yes, even if it means the snow must stay as well.

Susan Crossett has lived outside Cassadaga for more than 20 years. A lifetime of writing led to these columns as well as two novels. “Her Reason for Being” was published in 2008 with “Love in Three Acts” following in 2014. Both novels are now available at Lakewood’s Off the Beaten Path bookstore. Information on all the Musings, her books and the author may be found at Susancrossett.com.