A loon, visitor of the north

A common loon is a large bird, the size of a small goose, but it has a much shorter neck.  Its head is big and its bill is long and thick at the base, tapering to a point.  In spring, in breeding plumage, a common loon has a black head and bill, a white breast and a black back spotted with white.  It’s a swimmer and when it’s at the surface it’s as much in the water as on it, its back only inches out of the water.

Loons eat fish.  They get fish by swimming under water, driving themselves with large webbed feet.  Their legs and feet are nearly at the back of their body, so far back that they can hardly walk.  On land, more often than not, a loon slides on its breast and belly, pushing itself with its feet.

Loons dive most often to get below the water surface.  But they can also sink, literally.  They can force the air out of their feathers and their bodies and slowly go down.  Or they can swim with only their heads above the surface.

A loon has small wings for its size.  Though it flies swiftly and well it has to taxi like an airplane to get into the air.  Propelling itself with its wings and its legs and feet it rises up on the water and runs on the surface before it becomes airborne.

Occasionally a loon will land on wet asphalt, obviously because the asphalt looks like water.  When it does it’s trapped.  It can’t taxi on asphalt like on water so it cannot take off.  I saw a loon on land once, by a wet highway. It wasn’t injured.  I took it to a lake nearby and put it down at the shore.  It walked into the water, swam out, dived a few times, then rose up, ran on the surface and took off.

We saw only one loon on Steinbarger Lake.  Or perhaps we saw two but only one at a time for when we saw one it was never on the surface of the water long.  It was feeding, obviously, stoking up to continue its journey north.

Perhaps the loon, or loons, we saw would go only into Michigan before stopping to mate and nest and raise its brood.  Perhaps it would go into Canada to some wilderness lake surrounded by pine and spruce and fir trees.  Perhaps it would go to northern Canada, north of the tree line, north of the Arctic Circle and nest by a pond in the tundra.

When I see a loon, when I think of a loon, I think of the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Minnesota.  The common loon is the state bird.  I think of a wilderness lake, a lake surrounded by evergreen trees.  Or I think of a shallow lake in the tundra.  The common loon is also the official bird of the Canadian Province of Ontario.

We generally consider a bird’s home the place where it nests though many migrants spend as much or more time in different areas, often far to the south.  By such a consideration the loon, or loons, we saw recently at Steinbarger Lake in north-central Indiana were travelers on their way home.

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