Loons in Our Lakes

If the call of the loon “were of human origin,” author John McPhee once wrote, “it would be the laugh of the deeply insane.”

Although I understand why McPhee and others have described loon sounds as crazy laughter, sad wails, or a mournful yodel, to me there is no sound more hauntingly beautiful and symbolic of wilderness than the “oo-AH-ho” followed by the loud ringing “kee-a-ree, kee-a-ree” of the common loon.

More prevalent in the Adirondacks than in the Finger Lakes, loons are increasingly seen in our region during their seasonal migrations. If the lakes do not freeze, some stay all winter, feeding on perch and, as I once witnessed, undersized trout that fishermen release.

Most loons nest in wilderness areas to the north of us, but in 1824 Audubon noted that loons were breeding on Cayuga Lake. Loons have nested on the quiet waters of Canadice and Hemlock Lakes, despite the presence of one of their predators, the bald eagle. Much to my surprise, they have bred at least twice on Keuka Lake during the past four years.

The common loon is as stunning in its appearance as it is physically unusual among flying birds. It has iridescent red eyes and what resembles a white necklace around the back of its neck, a white breast, and white spots on a dark black back and sides. Its glossy black head dulls to dark grey in winter.

Loons are the only flying birds with heavy, solid bones serving as ballast when they dive under water. Before diving, they swim with their heads under water searching for fish.
Once a school is spotted, air is expelled from internal sacs, enabling them to dive to depths of 200 feet. I have watched them stay underwater for nearly two minutes.

However, what makes loons agile underwater – webbed feet and legs that are located toward the back of their bodies – makes them look quite comical walking on land. Because they are so heavy, their wings alone cannot lift them. To gain flight, they run along the surface of the water.

Unfortunately, this magnificent symbol of the wilderness is declining. Acid rain has diminished its food supply, and botulism has taken its toll of loons on Lake Ontario. Because loons nest so close to the water’s edge, waves from motorboats wash their eggs away. Lakeside development limits nesting sites, and ingestion of lead fishing jigs and sinkers have caused deadly poisoning.

Despite declines, loons can still be spotted on calm autumn and spring mornings on most of the Finger Lakes. During their migrations to and from the Chesapeake Bay, an average of  8,000 to 10,000 loons have been counted flying over or resting on Cayuga Lake. Recently, while I kayaked on Keuka Lake on a foggy spring morning, the haunting wail of loons sounded like a beacon in the fog. For several minutes they magically appeared and disappeared in the fog. Even though this was just off my dock, it was a pleasant reminder of many such morning encounters in the Adirondack wilderness.


by Bill Banaszewski
Photographer Bill Banaszewski is owner of Finger Lakes Images and professor emeritus of environmental conservation at Finger Lakes Community College. A sample of his photographs can be viewed at TheFingerLakesImages.com.