The Loons of Round Lake

The Common Loon is typically found in wilderness areas such as Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, so Lakeside Club owners are fortunate to be able to watch loons on Round Lake, which is currently home to a nesting pair of Common Loons and receives occasional visits by non-resident loons.

            Loons are very distinctive birds. The head of a mature Common Loon is jet black, with striking red eyes and a pointed black beak. Its plumage is a harmonious composition of contrasting black and white patterns. On the neck is a wedge-shaped band of narrow zebra-like vertical stripes over a solid black ring. The breast is white in front, with curved zebra stripes behind merging into a black back checkered with squarish white blobs. 

            The weird, wild sounds of loon calls suggests that loons are ancient birds, as they are. An eerie wail helps loons locate one another. A wavering tremolo may indicate danger or announce a loon’s arrival at a lake. A yodeling call warns other loons to keep off the territory of a resident male loon. That warning call is not always effective—one of the two loon chicks that hatched on Round Lake in 2018 was killed by an invading loon.

            Despite a torpedo-shaped body that enables it to fly at nearly 100 mph and dive to depths of 200 feet, the loon has a design flaw.  Its legs are so far back on the body that it needs a long runway to get up enough speed to take flight. Loons can barely walk at all on land, so a loon that comes to earth some distance from a substantial body of water may be stranded and die.

            It’s encouraging to know that loons can survive in places close to human habitation as well as wilderness areas, but there are a number of conditions that threaten their existence. Loons are carnivores who eat mostly fish and other aquatic creatures, so they may starve because of reduced fish populations, or ingest lead sinkers that have been swallowed by fish and die of lead poisoning. Pollutants such as fertilizer runoff can damage a lake’s habitat to the point where loons can no longer breed or survive. PWCs and other watercraft can drive loons from their nesting sites, wash eggs and chicks off a nest with their wakes, or even run over and kill them.   

            Loons are an indicator species whose presence on a lake indicates that the lake is healthy. To keep Round Lake healthy and keep the loons coming back to it, Lakeside Club members and other residents of lake property should follow some commonsense guidelines. Keep boats well away from places where the loons are swimming, especially nesting areas, which are marked by distinctive buoys. It’s best to watch them from at least 200 feet away, using binoculars or a spotting scope. Don’t fish or cast near loon nests or swimming loons, avoid the use of lead sinkers, and pick up monofilament fishing line in which loons can become entangled. Never throw trash into the lake, especially plastic items that might trap a loon. And don’t walk your dog anywhere near a potential loon nesting area. 

LoonCorps

LoonCorps is a local organization dedicated to protecting and preserving loon nesting areas. The founder of LoonCorps is Jeff Lange who, with a crew of volunteers, built an artificial nesting island (ANI) and moored it on one end of Round Lake. Loons and their chicks are very vulnerable to predators, especially when they nest on shore, so the ANI provides a reasonably safe and secure place to raise a loon family. Loon nesting areas are also protected by warning buoys to prevent boaters from approaching the loons too closely.

Tagging a Loon

            Since LoonCorps is an all-volunteer organization, it needs help to place and maintain the artificial nest islands and warning buoys it sets up every year, and to report observations of loon activities either from the shore or by boats (preferably non-motorized boats such as canoes or kayaks). Members of Lakeside Club could help out with this effort by selecting Volunteer on the LoonCorp website at https://looncorps.org/. On the website you can also learn more about loons and order a copy of Jeff’s video “The Uncommon Loon,” which was filmed entirely on Round Lake. Go to Uncommon Loon to see a trailer from that video on YouTube.

              Loons aren’t the only fascinating creatures in the area around Lakeside Club. Check out Jeff’s Video about the inhabitants of nearby wetlands.

The Loon Report

This report will attempt to keep you updated about the activities of the loons on Round Lake. Reports of loon observations by Lakeside Club members will be appreciated: contact John Lehman at jwillehman@gmail.com. You can also read updates on the LoonCorps website at https://looncorps.org/.

2019

August 11. Ron Pool reports: Friday night 3 loons out in middle of lake together just floating. No hostile action seen. Certainly an odd year. No sighting of merganser. 

August 8. Bud Siudara reported an incident involving a Round Lake loon and a Merganser chick that had been observed by Ron Pool and Ron Hoekman on July 30. Ron Hoekman took this photo of the “loon chase” and sent the following report.

 “The Merganser & chicks swam by close to shore at about 6PM with the chicks sometimes riding on her back. They disappeared, but the chicks returned at about 6:30 without mother & I walked out on our dock for some more photos. Meanwhile the loon was casually swimming around nearby, then diving & surfacing near the two chicks who immediately scattered. One headed east & escaped. The other was pursued by the loon thrashing through the water, but somehow managed to escape by diving, then skittering across the water- too immature to fly. The deadly chase was repeated two more times, each one looked like it would be curtains for the chick, but Ron Pool came out with his kayak, the hero to intervene & allow the chick to escape. We have not seen the merganser family since that encounter & wonder if any survived the attack.”

According to Bud, “The chick was motor boating in high gear for dear life. We think the loons this year are young and new to the lake. They don’t act like the old pair and don’t frequent the spots the old loons predictably frequented for years. No nesting activity this year.”

July 3. Thanks to Bud Siudara for the following Loon Report.

  1. No loon chicks this year. There’s been no inkling of foreplay and no male evening mating calls. The nest has been ignored.
  2. Have you noticed anything unusual about the two loons? Probably not because you haven’t seen them much. It’s not you. It’s them. Both have kept a continuous low visual profile during daylight hours most likely because they’re fishing on the big lake. Unit 50 is perfectly suited for loon watching. I can scan almost 130° north-south from my deck. Not much escapes my 10-power long eyes and I regularly look to the lake.
  3. In the 30 some days in condo residence this May and June, I have had only three loon sightings: (1) A single loon fishing in front of our unit in late May, (2) Two weeks ago, both were sleeping (heads tucked) quite close to Russ Smith’s pontoon at 2:00 in the afternoon. I’ve never seen loons sleeping in daylight. Never! (3) Last Tuesday in a high fog morning, I saw both maybe 75’ off shore paddling very deliberately in single file headed northerly. Something was on their mind. Loons typically drift fish in no big hurry. And when they have a destination in mind, they move casually. That morning, the two were in high gear. I’ve never seen loons move so fast and determined other than in situations of fear or confrontation with other loons or intruders.    
  4. I’ve carefully watched Round Lake loons for 30 summers. That experience plus reading and even years ago attending a seminar on Common Loon-ology doesn’t make me an expert. But, that experience gives me confidence in my conclusion that the two loons on our lake this year are new to the lake.
  5. Maybe these loons are young. They certainly don’t act like the loons of past years who were highly visual, talked a lot each night, and always fished in the same spots each day.
  6. I see in these two nothing that comes close to the long-standing pattern of the same birds that returned year after year.
  7. Wild animals and migratory water fowl are creatures of habit and generally territorial. It’s the chip in their brain. A bear might have a 10-mile wide territory. But that bear will travel basically the same route each night in that 10-mile territory. Like most wild animals, bears travel at night. Deer travel the same game trails day in and day out, but mostly at night. The point being, wild game are creatures of territorial habit. Common loons are especially so. A lake is their territory.
  8. Year after year, the “old” Round Lake loons would regularly appear in front of our unit around 6:30 each evening when it was quite and slowly fish and drift south to north to the area on the south side of the conservancy. It was like clockwork. Nothing this year.
  9. Our lake is big enough for two loons. And once that territory is claimed, the pair will return each year to breed and birth. The lake is their territory. And once on their lake, they tend to fish in familiar places. I think these loons are still adapting. Have they claimed our lake is their new home????  
  10. What’s become of the “old” loon pair? It’s anyone’s guess: age, disease and foul (not fowl) play. Loons winter in the Gulf of Mexico. A lot can happen during the months in their winter range. Plus, all sorts of risks can be encountered in the 2,000 mile migratory journey first south and then back north each year.

June 9. According to the following report from Ron Pool, in response to an inquiry from Bud Siudara, there is still a pair of loons on Round Lake but they have not yet nested. Ron reports that he will be putting buoys out soon. “Out in the boat yesterday and a pair was at the end of lake near Shaw Rd. This morning the pair was between our dock and neighbors. The nest platform is right next to a duck blind someone built last fall. Blind is a tall structure kind of rust color since the cedars branches used are all dead. I have 4 orange plow stakes on the nest. Not to late for a nest yet, but…”

April 6. Sadly, Loon Corps founder Jeff Lange passed away on February 26 this year while snowshoeing around his home. According to Jeff’s partner Lee Anne Whitman, his family plans to keep LoonCorps alive.  

2018

Oct. 26. A chick was lost to an invading loon. The other chick was under attack, but a local resident on Round Lake, Ron Pool, jumped into a kayak and drove it off. At that time the dead chick was found about 100 yds offshore. There was another attack on the remaining chick but it was found the next morning swimming alone. Since then, the surviving chick suffered no deadly attacks known to the lake residents, and there is every reason to believe it has flown off the lake to begin its migration. LoonCorps is discussing whether to attempt to encourage the loons to establish a second territory on the lake by placing a nesting raft in the NW corner off Conservancy property. While there’s no guarantee that installing a raft actually can encourage loons to nest, it has been done on nearby lakes (Douglas, for instance) in recent years.

July 14. The Round Lake loon pair hatched 2 chicks in what is becoming a typical late nesting pair, or a nesting pair that is experiencing a failed first nest and having a successful go at a second nest.

2017

July 2017. A nesting loon was spotted on a secluded shore of Round Lake. About a week later Jeff Lange reported “When I arrived at Round Lake this morning I saw (and filmed) 2 tiny loon chicks with their parents. Newly hatched, and cruising the south end with their very devoted parents.” The loon parents had scorned Jeff’s ANI, but at least they had a succeeded in adding one more loon to the population of Michigan. The second chick was not seen again. It probably fell victim to an eagle or one of the snapping turtles that inhabit Round Lake.

pre-2017

There had been a nesting pair of loons on Round Lake for many years, but the resident male was chased away by a competitor in 2014 and no chicks had hatched since then. In the interim the loons sorted out who would rule the territory. At least one of the current loon parents is a pre-2010 native, because the band installed on him is still intact.

Images by Jeff Lange of Loon Corps