Common loons epitomize all things wild up north--spruce and beech forests, abundant waters, and sparse human population.
In spite of their name "common," however, fewer than 800 pairs remain in Michigan. They're listed as threatened. Thus, hearing their eerie yodels, tremolos, and wails ranks high among treasured northern experiences.
So it was that we chose the 96,000-acre Seney NWR in Michigan's Upper Peninsula as a destination. For a full day, we wandered the 9.5 mile auto trail, spotting and photographing about a dozen loons and their half-grown chicks, each family occupying its own clear lake.
Loons swim exceptionally well and dive for fish. In fact, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, biologists estimate that a loon pair with two chicks consume about a half ton of fish during their 15-week breeding season.
Loon habitat, though, requires more than clear, fish-filled waters. Since a loon pair needs about 150 acres of water to call home, one never sees flocks of loons. In addition, depending on wind speed, loons need 30 yards up to a quarter mile to become airborne, flapping and running across the water to lift off. But once airborne, their swim muscles become flight muscles, and they cruise at 70 mph.
Unfortunately, their long-distance take-off requirement can turn fatal. For example, should a loon ever misjudge the size of a body of water and land on a too-small pond, it's trapped and faces dire consequences. Likewise, should it mistake a rain-drenched airport runway or parking lot for water, it cannot take flight and won't survive without human intervention, someone transporting it to suitable waters.
One of the most inspiring experiences at Seney, however, was "meeting" the loon identified by the code ABJ. At age 28, he's the oldest loon of known age in the world. Most live no more than 15-20 years, many much less.
Hatched and banded as a juvenile on Seney's F pool, he remained in absentia three years until reaching maturity--usual loon behavior. As juveniles, loons migrate during their first autumn to the Atlantic or Gulf Coast and, rather than returning north the next spring, they hang out in southern waters until they mature.
So when ABJ returned to Seney at age three, he settled onto whatever waters the older birds allowed. But by age six, no longer willing to be shoved aside, he took on his elders and commandeered his ancestral F pool home as his own. For 22 years, he's successfully defended the territory.
This summer he's keeping house with his third mate and has raised an average of 1.1 chicks each year of his adult life, an amazing avian record. While we watched, he fed his now half-grown chick, his red and green leg bands identifying the old guy.
In the Tri-State, observant birders spot occasional migrating loons, but those winter-plumaged all-gray birds bear little resemblance to the spectacularly marked birds of summer. In non-breeding plumage, loons are best identified by shape, behavior, and bill size.