Nature News: The Common Loon

published week of August 16th in local Seacoast Media Group newspapers and online 8/20/2021

As a teacher, all summer is a vacation. In theory, because like most teachers I work in some way during the summer, if not a paying job then doing some sort of professional development for the upcoming school year.  So, I take vacations within vacation during the summer-my most recent being a canoe trip down the Richardson Lakes in Maine.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, I was hoping to see moose, but it has been too dry up there-they were staying back in the swamps in the woods since the water level of the lake was 8 feet down.  Instead we spent most of our time in the company of loons.  They regaled us at night with their eerie calls. They accompanied us as we paddled from campsite to campsite, getting so close to the canoe that we were afraid to fish and accidentally catch a loon.  While doing so we learned one of their many common calls-the ‘toot’  (which we had previously thought was a dog barking) and got glimpses into their social and hunting behavior.  

Loon sporting beautiful contrasting breeding plumage including brilliant red eye. sue pike photo

The common loon (Gavia immer) is one of those birds that everyone can identify.  Their breeding plumage is beautiful-black and white checks on their back, a black head with a contrasting black and white vertically-striped neck rings, a bright white belly and piercing red eyes (the bright red eye is probably a visual display since their eyes are brightest during mating season). They have long bodies with feet set in back to help with swimming and huge, dagger-like beaks (one of the many reasons we didn’t want to accidentally catch a loon on our lures).  Loons are members of a family of birds -the loons or divers-that are built for swimming underwater, in fact they only go to land to mate and incubate eggs.  

Loons are built for swimming

According to Cornell Lab’s “All About Birds” in addition to their overall body plan, “Unlike most birds, loons have solid bones that make them less buoyant and better at diving. They can quickly blow air out of their lungs and flatten their feathers to expel air within their plumage, so they can dive quickly and swim fast underwater. Once below the surface, the loon’s heart slows down to conserve oxygen.” Loons have been recorded swimming as fast as 20 miles per hour and can turn on a dime.  They can see well underwater-we watched as loons floating on the surface ducked their heads into the water scanning for the small fish (like yellow perch) that are their primary prey before silently disappearing underwater to catch said fish. 

Loon scanning the depths for fish sue pike photo

The search for young loons and rafting loons

When we picked up our rental canoe we were told that the loons seemed to be rafting up early this year (in preparation for migration to the coast) and that there were no chicks on Upper and Lower Richardson Lakes this year.  We hoped to prove this wrong and find some juvenile loons, but didn’t.  

We did, however, see lots of groups of loons congregating (rafting) on the lake.  While they might be readying for migration, they might also be gathering for a loon social hour.  When we saw groups of loons nearby they were more likely to make short barking calls back and forth (the calls that we originally mistook for dogs) rather than their eerie yodeling calls.  We felt there was a group of 4 loons following our canoe (probably just fanciful imaginings on our part) that would be progressively joined by pairs of loons forming a larger group (we once counted 11 loons) that ‘talked’ and fished for a while and then dispersed. 

Looks to me like social hour for loons sue pike photo

Loons get more social as summer progresses

According to the Cornell Lab, earlier in the summer loons are not social and generally stay just as mated pairs (loons have been observed violently defending their territories against other loons), but as summer progresses they will come together into social gatherings at specific times-these gatherings often include non-territorial birds and unsuccessful breeders with successful breeders joining the groups as summer progresses.  In the fall even larger groups form to fish together before migration.  I wonder whether, because of the absence of chicks, the loons were holding their social gatherings earlier in the season than usual?  I hope that the absence of chicks on the lake wasn’t a pattern for other lakes.  Maine Audubon just held their 2021 Annual Loon Count (a great citizen science opportunity for loon lovers) -the data from that should be ready in a few months.  

This could be a loon in its stressed, aggressive ‘penguin posture’ telling us to go away, or the more social ‘vulture posture’ thought to help amplify their yodeling calls. I’m guessing stressed-since we are near it. sue pike photo

One of the many reasons I love living in the north is our proximity to habitat that supports wildlife like the loon.  Finding loons on a lake is a good indicator that the water is clear and unpolluted, that fish swim in abundance below the surface. The loon is one of those icons of the north-its haunting call reminding us of the wild places on earth-the beautiful places untouched by sprawl and urbanization.  

Nature News: Angelica is an Icelandic beauty. Here in New England we have three species

One thing I like to do when I travel is look for similarities with my home in Maine instead of the differences. I’m an armchair Arctic explorer and have tried to figure out why – I think perhaps it is because the Arctic is an extension of where I live, my backyard in a northerly direction.

In the few times I’ve been lucky enough to go to the Arctic, what has excited me the most has been encountering plants (and migratory birds – that is always exciting) up there that I also find in the mountains and even backyards of New England. While in Iceland this summer, one plant loomed large (literally), angelica, a huge not-Arctic looking plant.

Angelica stands out against the green cliffs of Iceland

Different members of this genus are common in New England as well as all over Iceland (and throughout north and northeast Europe, Russia, Greenland and the Himalayas). To me, angelica fits in with our large-leaved summer plants, whereas in Iceland it towers out of place (up to 8 feet high), fleshy, big-leaved, almost tropical looking. Even more incongruous were the ever-present Icelandic seabirds (fulmars and puffins) nesting among the leaves or exotic Icelandic songbirds perched on the heavy flowerheads.  Seeing angelica in Iceland reminded me to look for it when I get back home.

Two species of angelica are common in Iceland. Garden angelica (Angelica archangelica) with large, rounded flowerheads, has been cultivated since ancient times for use as a flavoring and for its medicinal properties and grows everywhere, whereas wild angelica (Angelica sylvestris) with its large, flat flowerheads, grows mostly in the lowlands. Here in New England we have three species: purple-stemmed angelica (Angelica atropurpurea) is found in wet places,  sea coast angelica (Angelica lucida), as the name implies, grows along the coast, and hairy angelica (Angelica venenosa), which is rare and is found only in Connecticut and Massachusetts.  

While purple-stemmed and sea coast angelica have a long history of use as a food and medicine, hairy angelica is toxic. I would advise against foraging for angelica for a number of reasons, foremost being it grows in among the highly toxic water hemlock (and the invasive giant hogweed) and looks somewhat similar (these species are members of the carrot family). In addition, all members of the angelica genus contain phototoxic compounds called furanocoumarins that can cause, sometimes severe, skin irritations.  

Redwings, the Icelandic equivalent of American robins, perch on (and eat) angelica

Also, instead of killing wild plants for food we don’t need, why not grow some garden angelica in your garden?  Here’s what the University of New Hampshire Extension has to say about the variety of uses you can put it to: “its large chartreuse leaves with inflated stem bases make a bold statement in the modern herb garden or flower border. The roots, leaves, seeds (many of our native birds like the seeds as well) and young stems are the edible portions, and have a flavor similar to licorice. The leaves can be mixed into salads, the shoots used as celery or turned into candy, and the leaves, seeds, and roots can be used for making tea.”  

Angelica is also a great pollinator plant. It is considered a generalist, attractive to a wide variety of pollinating insects. Here in Iceland, it is often covered with flies (friendly, non-biting flies). More specifically, as a member of the carrot family, it is attractive to Eastern black swallowtail butterflies, which I currently attract with dill and fennel. These butterflies will lay eggs on the plant that hatch into adorable, colorful caterpillars that can often strip my dill and fennel too quickly. I imagine the more robust angelica, large, hardy resident of the Arctic, will be able to stand up to their depredations. 

Flies flock to Angelica!