The loony bin

Common Loons

When Blackburnian and I were out boating yesterday evening, we came across a pair of loons who were exceptionally obliging for photographs. While we cruised slowly by in the boat, the remained on the water, looking reasonably unperturbed. At the closest we were about 20 feet away. I ran off a series of photos, trying to make the best of the opportunity in the less-than-ideal lighting, from a moving boat. A little while later, presumably the same pair flew overhead as they made their way from one end of the lake to the other. Again, very obligingly, one of the individuals circled around and flew nearly straight over the boat, the setting sun glinting off his wings and body.

Common Loon

More than any other, the bird that characterizes the northern landscape to me is the Common Loon, Gavia immer. It’s probably because these birds aren’t encountered during the breeding season in southern Ontario, so I only ever see them when further north, in combination with their vociferousness, which means they’re more likely to be detected than other species. In truth, the species is actually encountered further south than I may have guessed; the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario, published last winter, indicates breeding records for Common Loons as far south as the Prince Edward County area on Lake Ontario in the east, and and a spot perhaps 20 km west of where my parents live to the west. In fact, only the southern couple hundred kilometers of southern Ontario don’t record the species.

Common Loon

Their abundance, as mapped by the same Atlas, is much lower in southern Ontario than it is elsewhere. Highest abundance in the province is found in a few pockets in northern Ontario, particularly in northwestern Ontario. Up there, in 100 square kilometers (about 24,710 acres or 36.6 square miles) one may encounter as many as 8 birds per 25 randomly-completed point counts (the Atlas’s unit of measurement for mapping abundance). Their abundance is higher there because of the profusion of lakes and water bodies. In southern Ontario their abundance is lower, generally averaging no more than 1 or 2 birds per 25 point counts, with strongest abundance corresponding to the areas around Algonquin Provincial Park and the Frontenac Axis. The Frontenac Axis is an area of the Canadian Shield, the rocky, rugged granite landscape, that extends south to eventually join up with the Adirondacks in New York.

The loons are commonly seen here on our lake and surrounding area. We’re on the edge of the Frontenac Axis, and the landscape reflects this collision of the two regions, the granite Shield and the flatter limestone that dominates most of southern Ontario. We have the deciduous forest of the south along our road, but across the lake, in Frontenac Provincial Park, there is quite a bit of mixed forest, with a strong component of coniferous trees. The region is also characterized by many lakes; indeed, Frontenac County also has the casual name of “Land O’ Lakes”. And the lakes are full of fish.

Common Loons

A pair of loons needs on average about 70 hectares (173 acres) per pair to raise a family. That’s an immense amount of lake, and so usually there’s only one pair per lake. In areas where the lakes are small, a single pair may claim ownership of more than one. The reason for this is in their diet; not only finding, but being able to catch enough fish of a suitable size to feed two adults and raise a couple chicks to adulthood requires a large area to forage in. In areas where fish are abundant, the loons’ territory may be smaller; where fish are scarce the territory will be larger. The Atlas reports the range of territories, as recorded in a 1973 study, to be anywhere from 7 to 200 ha (17 to 494 acres), which is a pretty broad range. In any case, the pair of loons that we’ve observed on our lake, our neighbouring lake, and flying overhead, are most likely all the same individuals moving about between the different water bodies.

Common Loon

I love the loon’s crisp black-and-white pattern, punctuated with a blood-red eye. Unsurprisingly, given its appearance and haunting, lonely call, the species is a prominent figure in many cultures. Native American tribes have different stories that feature the loon, from the Chippewa tale of a loon that created the world, to those of British Columbia who believed the call of the loon predicted rain (this wouldn’t be difficult; loons call all the time, and it rains all the time in BC). The tale of how the loon got its necklace is a frequently-told one in the Ojibway and many other cultures, and I remember reading a children’s book about the story.

In modern culture, the loon is found on the Canadian one-dollar coin (called the “loonie” for this reason, not because we’re crazy to add yet another coin to what we carry around in our pockets), which was introduced in place of the paper bill in 1987. It was also found on the $20 bill of the previous Canadian currency design series (which was “birds of Canada”). The loon is the provincial bird of Ontario, and the state bird of Minnesota. And of course, the loon is the cottage country bird.

Common Loon

Loons are good fliers, mostly due to the stamina they have from making a living by diving for their food. Despite this, loons have exceptionally high wing-loading – a term that refers to the aerodynamics of the bird and the amount of lift created by the wing in flight (specifically, how much weight, or load, is placed per square inch of wing). A bird with low wing-loading means the wings create more than enough lift to keep the bird easily airborne. A bird with high wing-loading has just enough lift to get themselves off the ground and into the air. Like with the oceanic alcids, a loon’s wings are designed more for efficiency when diving, and the birds are so borderline when it comes to wing-loading that the loss of even a few wing feathers may be enough to render them flightless. During their spring moult prior to the breeding season they drop all of their flight feathers at the same time in order to reduce the amount of time they’re flightless (in the meantime they escape threat by diving, which is the reason they can get away with such a moult pattern – most birds moult feathers sequentially so they can still fly away from danger). Like a jet on a runway, loons need to get up speed to generate enough lift to take off, and can’t take off from land; instead they either need to face into the wind or “run” along the water’s surface as they flap to generate lift.

Loons are better divers. They use their feet to propel themselves underwater, and use their wings for additional thrush and for steering. A loon’s feet are set well back on its body to maximize efficiency underwater, much further back than the average bird, or even the average waterbird. As good as they are for swimming, this placement means a loon’s legs are nearly useless out of water. Loons have trouble walking on land because their legs aren’t centered under their center of balance. There are a handful of reports of loons making overland migrations, mostly young birds travelling from a quiet but fish-depauperate lake to a choppier or busier, but fish-full, lake a short distance away, urged on by their parents who must have decided it was too much work carrying fish back and forth to the youngsters.

Generally speaking, however, the furthest a loon will travel along land is usually the short distance from the water’s edge to its nest, which is built either on floating mats of vegetation or close to the water along the shoreline. Because of this close proximity to water, loon nests are especially vulnerable to storms and boat wakes. Nests are more frequently found on smaller lakes that are less likely to have a lot of boat traffic, particularly speed boats, but also which aren’t as prone to driving waves that build across long open expanses of water. Our lake would be perfect for them. A Common Loon’s diet is made up of small fish of many species: pike, perch, bass, sunfish and trout. Between our lake and the one next door, we’ve got all of those, in seemly good abundance. Loons prefer clear-water lakes because most of their hunting is done by sight, and our lake has excellent visibility.

Common Loon

This is one of my favourite shots of the pair. Loons are such majestic birds, and rarely fail to stir some emotion through either their striking plumage or haunting call. Their populations in Ontario have been fairly stable over the last 20 years, and possibly even increasing a bit in the south. Bird Studies Canada organizes a citizen science project called the Canadian Lakes Loon Survey that helps in monitoring numbers and breeding success. Botulism outbreaks periodically occur among populations causing widespread mortality, with the most recent major outbreak being in 1999-2002. Acid rain has also been determined to be a factor in breeding success, as it reduces fish population levels and also can cause heavy metals and other pollutants to leach from the surrounding landscape and build up in the food chain. There was a period where lead shot from hunters, and lead weights from anglers, was causing loon deaths from lead poisoning. The birds ingested the pellets mistakenly thinking they were pebbles, which the birds use as grit to help aid digestion, breaking down the hard bones and exoskeletons of their prey.

In the last couple of decades these lead products have been banned from a number of jurisdictions, although in many places lead shot has been banned from use in waterfowl hunting, but is still sold in the form of lead sinkers for angling. Fortunately, even in areas where there is no ban, hunters and anglers voluntarily choose non-lead alternatives. Unfortunately, the lead that was put into the environment over recent decades will remain there for a long time, ban or no ban, and will continue to poison birds for a while even after it stops being used. Recent events regarding the poisoning of seven California Condors this summer, due to lead shot in carcasses they scavenged, has given the issue national publicity, and will hopefully result in more proactive choices by sportsmen and women, and potentially further bans on the product, as well.

We’re glad that we have a pair of loons here, and that they seem to be doing well. Adult loons take off not long after finishing breeding, but young loons stay near their nesting grounds well into the fall, so we can look forward to having them around for some time yet.


At home with the birds


Well, here I am, finally! I didn’t intend to be gone quite this long, but through various mix-ups, miscommunications and snags, we only just got our internet hooked up today. We opted to go for a bundle deal with one of the primary companies around here, and have been rather unimpressed with how things have gone. Our phone was hooked up two days late, and our satellite television still isn’t working quite right (we have a service person out today to have it looked at). Hopefully the last of all this will be sorted out today.

But, we made it, without incident, and we’ve otherwise settled in. We unpacked the last of our boxes yesterday, and there’s just a few last tidying-up details to take care of. It’s certainly feeling like home already. We’re just loving the location. Although it’s a bit further from town than we’d probably originally have considered, it’s still an easy, reasonable drive for once- or twice-a-week trips for supplies. If we were the commuting sort, it would be an average commute in to the “big” city (big being a relative term; compared to Toronto, virtually all of Ontario’s cities, with the possible exception of Ottawa, are moderate in size).


The scenery and wildlife make it all worthwhile, however. Right across the lake is a provincial park, and the non-park shore has a pretty low population density itself. It’s not a small lake, at about 3.5 km long, but there’s only a couple dozen buildings along its outer shore. There’s hardly ever anyone out on the lake, at least that we’ve noticed. This weekend was a holiday long weekend for most people, and even then, while there was an increase in boaters, it still wasn’t busy, by any means. During our housing search we checked out a couple of other places that were located on lakes, but they were very busy, and noisy. Not our speed, really.

The birdlife here has been amazing, and we’ve only been here a week. We’ve tallied 63 species so far at our home, on the lake, or within a short walking distance along the road. To put that in perspective, our yard/neighbourhood list back in Toronto was less than 30 after five years of living there. August is perhaps the quietest time of the bird-season (April through October), when all the breeders have stopped singing, but the migrants haven’t really started to arrive yet. And in winter, while the diversity is lower, they’re coming to your feeders and are easy to observe. We anticipate some great birding through the rest of the year. The park has a checklist of 170 species to date, so we still have lots yet to see!


Red-eyed Vireos are abundant, in any flock of birds there will be at least two or three of them. For the first few days after we arrived, there were Red-eyed Vireos hanging around in the trees just off our deck. At first we just saw the adults, but shortly a fledgling showed up with them. This photo was taken from the deck, looking down into a little shrub the family was sitting in. Also in the trees around the house has been a regular family of chickadees. Young chickadees are very vocal, loudly begging for food from their parents, so we can always tell when they’re outside.


A few mornings ago, Blackburnian was on his way down to the dock with his morning coffee when he heard some commotion along the road, a mixed flock of birds moving along the trees of the road edge. He grabbed his binoculars and went out to check them out. Among the flock was a family of Cerulean Warblers, and, knowing that I’d like to see them, he came back in to get me. Ceruleans are an endangered species in Ontario, sparsely distributed through the southern part of the province and only found in certain local patches. However, in these areas they can be locally common. One of the spots recognized as being among the best places to find breeding Ceruleans is not too far east from us, and we’re at the western edge of their eastern Ontario stronghold. It’s a great place for them; around here there is extensive forest cover, because of the low population density and the rocky landscape, which makes farming impractical.


Although this isn’t a great photo of it, this was one of the birds I was most pleased to catch a glimpse of. It actually sat rather obligingly for a little while in this open spot on the branch, catching the morning light nicely to illuminate his bright colours. It’s a Yellow-throated Vireo, and it’s a bird that’s been on my jinx-bird list (those birds that seem to elude you no matter how hard you try to find them) for quite a while. I had heard a few singing before, but try as I might I’d never been able to see one. I hadn’t actually expected them to be breeding this far north and east, I tend to think of them as a Carolinian species, but consulting my recently-published copy of the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario, I see that they actually occur in a strong band along the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, as well, and their largest pocket of high abundance in the province is actually the Frontenac Axis.

Black-and-white Warbler

Black-and-white Warblers are also abundant in the area, if not quite so much as the Red-eyed Vireos. I haven’t seen any adult males, with their bold black throats, but I’m not certain whether that means the birds I have seen are females and immatures, or if the adult males have already moulted into their winter plumages. There’s a surprising diversity of warblers in our area. Back in Toronto and area we had a small handful of species that might breed commonly. So far here we’ve tallied 10 species of warblers, all of which would be local breeders, with the potential of another 10 or 11 that we haven’t encountered yet.


The first birds we observed at the house were a pair of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds on our first viewing of the place. One of the first things we did outside once we moved in was to fill up the hummingbird feeder. The previous residents had a feeder in place, but it didn’t look like they’d been keeping it filled. It didn’t take long for the hummers to find it. Since they did they’ve been regular visitors. They decided quickly that we weren’t any serious threat, and will often feed while we’re only half a dozen feet away.


And finally, the quintessential cottage-country birds, Common Loons. We didn’t notice any when we were viewing the house, but we were only here for an hour or so each time. Once we moved in they became quite apparent – but more by their calls than by spotting them. They call regularly every evening and periodically through the rest of the day. They seem to be done breeding, and move often from our lake to any of the many others in the area. On the same morning that we were out looking at the Cerulean family, a family of five Common Loons flew overhead, calling to each other, as they moved to the lake on the other side of the road.

We also noticed a phoebe had built a nest on the security light above the deck stairs, and occasionally hear one singing in the area. I was worried that we wouldn’t have scrub and meadow birds around here and that I’d miss birds from my parents’ like the Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Kingbird or Indigo Bunting, but they’re all here. There are Osprey and Red-shouldered Hawks frequently seen along the lake edge. We also have some more northern birds that I was hoping to get in the area, such as White-throated Sparrow, Common Raven, or several of the warblers. We’ve heard Red Crossbills on a few mornings, though it’s hard to say if they’re post-breeding dispersals or early “winter” irruptives.

And that’s just a small sampling of things! The rest of the local wildlife is just as varied and abundant… but that’ll be another post.