An Asylum of Loons

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Filed under Outdoor Notes

April 23, 2011

Every spring, we get a few visiting loons on Holman Lake. It had always seemed to me that the birds would land, rest for a week or so, and then continue north to their breeding grounds.  I think I might have been wrong.

Common Loon

Common Loon

The Common Loon (Gavia immer) is a circumpolar species. It is known in Great Britain as the Great Northern Diver, an apt name.  A sizeable population winters off the coastal waters of Virginia and the Carolinas, and they pass through Pennsylvania on their spring migration. According to Bolgiano and Grove, they also pass through on autumn migration as well, but I have never seen any.1

This year, I saw the first loon on the 26th of March. By the end of the month, there were at least five on the lake. By the 10th of April, there were seventeen.

Common Loons on Holman Lake

14 Common Loons on Holman Lake. There were at least three more.

We all know about the skein of geese, the murder of crows, the covey of quail, but what is a large group of loons called: a ward? a bin?

My vote is an asylum of loons.

Loons dive to eat. They pursue fish and other aquatic critters under water, and, normally, they consume their prey underwater, unless the prey is too big.

Common Loon with Rainbow Trout

Loon with prey

Loons are famously adapted for submarine pursuits: their feathers repel water; their feet are well set back, which makes them excellent swimmers; they can actually squeeze the air out from between their feathers to make themselves less bouyant; and their wings are short and powerfully built for “flying” underwater. The downside to all this aquatic adaptation is that they are famously clumsy on land, and they require a long take-off run to get airborne.

At one point, I got to see a bird that came up carrying a very respectable fish. While it was trying various approaches to get the fish oriented for swallowing, it kept dipping the fish underwater.  Another loon came up from underneath, I suspect to try and steal the fish. That stratagem failed. The first loon took off “running” across the surface of the water, rowing with both wings, until it had left the other loon about twenty yards behind.

There was no pursuit; a modicum of decorum was preserved. They’re loons, not seagulls.

To my mind, seventeen loons on a single small lake in the mountains is unusual. I think, perhaps, that in years passed a few loons came through almost every day and left after a day or two. I no longer think that they came and rested for a week at a time. This year, however, I think they discovered a very ready food source, and they did stay for at least a week, piling up this remarkable gathering.

You see, on the 4th of April, Lake Holman was stocked with Rainbow Trout in an effort to attract anglers.

It worked.

Common Loon with prey

Angler with catch

1 The Birds of Central Pennsylvania. If you are serious about watching birds in Central PA, you should own this book. Unhappily, it can be hard to find. Best bet is the Shaver Creek Environmental Center bookstore. It is also available online at Buteo Books.

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One Response

  1. rose said:

    I saw a few two legged anglers staring at the loons with less than affection.

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