The hauntingly beautiful cries of the common loon ,Gavia immer, across Setter Lake always sets my heart a-singing. . Although I thoroughly welcome and enjoy the songs of the many birds who stop at our bird feeders as they traverse northward, it is the sound of the loon in the budding or diminishing day that most resonates.
My first introduction to the loon was as a young middle-school student in Sacramento, California. After Sunday Mass, our family would go home for lunch and then load all seven children into a big Chrysler station-wagon, and embark on family field trips to museums, historic areas, and on rock-hunting trips.
One such trip took us to Loon Lake in El Dorado County. Our dad related to us the origin of the phrase “loony” or “loony bin” and folklore of the criminally insane, We agreed though in our initial acquantaince with the loon, they sounded anything but crazy.
When we were building on Setter Lake in 2006, I had my first close up and personal exposure to the common loon. And I must repeat, they have completely captivated me. With their striking black and white markings, they are anything but common and are easily identified on the lake by their block heads and low profile in the water.
According to Cornell labs, the presence of loons is indicative of a healthy water source. This is of concern to us as the four mating pairs we counted in 2006 when we were building have dwindled to one mating pair as the area has become more populated. enforcement of sanitation and junk code absent in Thorne Bay.
They are excellent indicators of water quality as they require crystal-clear lakes (which makes it easier for them to see prey underwater) with abundant populations of small fish. Lakes with coves and islands are preferred as they provide cover from predators while resting and nesting. They also require lakes with enough surface area for their flapping-and-running takeoffs across the water.
Our first Setter Lake loon sightings were what appeared to my untrained eyes as two loons performing a choreographed dance . Whether they were fighting or mating I know not even now., as I have never observed a repeat performance, much like the Canadian geese cottilion that my two puppies and I watched late spring. in 2008 The two loons were about 100 ft apart, facing and calling to each other, than they swam towards the half-way point between themselves, raised their bodies out of the lake, f wings flapping. After this short display, they, lifting themselves out of the water flew up and parted, flying in diametrically opposite directions.Upon reaching the spot where they started , dove straight down into the lake. The loons swam underwater towards each other under the surface to meet at the half way point again, rising out of the lake to engage, flapping their wings and repeated the routine three or four times before swimming off together.
Unlike the geese who used to frequent Setter Lake, the loons diet on crustaceans and fish. According to Cornell Labs
Common Loons are expert anglers. Their diet consists of mostly fish, .... If fish are scarce or water is too murky for fishing, they will catch crustaceans, snails, leeches and even aquatic insect larvae. Though people on the surface only see loons disappear with a dive and reappear with a fish in their bill to be swallowed headfirst, their fishing pursuits underwater are something to behold. Loons shoot through the water like a torpedo, propelled by powerful thrusts of feet located near the rear of their body. When their quarry changes direction, loons can execute an abrupt flip-turn that would make Olympic swimmers jealous: they extend one foot laterally as a pivot brake and kick with the opposite foot to turn 180 degrees in a fraction of a second. In their wintering waters, loons eat smallish fish such as Atlantic croaker. Sometimes they band together in groups to chase schools of Gulf silversides.
To say the least, the loons are beautiful to watch and their calls thrilling to hear. I miss seeing the multiple loons pairs that used to nest on the lake with little ones in tow. The lake used to resound from all corners and coves as they made their territorial cries, tremelos, yodels , warning hoots, and other soundings. Now we listen to the appropriately haunting cries of our lone pair.