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Earth Journal
by Gary Pendleton

You Might Hear a Loon

To be honest, the loud, yodeling call of the loon is not often heard around the Chesapeake. You have almost certainly heard it on television commercials and motion pictures such as On Golden Pond. It is a beautiful sound, and for many people it is the true call of the wild.

The common loon is closely associated with the far-away lakes and ponds of Minnesota and points north. The Canadian one-dollar coin is called the loon, for it bears the bird’s image. Loons breed in those cold waters, and it is on the breeding grounds that their call is usually heard.

However, from time to time, a loon passing through will honor a mid-Atlantic listener with its haunting mating call. A few years ago, it might have been November, a visiting loon was heard calling in North Beach over a period of three or four days.

It was likely passing through, as loons migrate through the region in the fall. But it might have stayed, as many of their numbers over-winter on the Chesapeake, while others travel as far south as the Gulf of Mexico.

These wintering loons prefer the open waters of bays and rivers, so they are not so easy to see or hear. Still, along the Chesapeake shoreline, you might catch a look at one. The North Beach waterfront offers one of the better viewing opportunities. From the boardwalk or along Atlantic Avenue at the north end of town, solitary loons can occasionally swim among larger numbers of diving ducks such as canvasback and scaup. Go in the afternoon when the light is generally better, and don’t forget your binoculars.

Loons are fairly large; they ride low in the water and, being consumers of fish, they frequently dive for food. They can use their powerful feet to reach depths as great as 600 feet, though in the shallow Chesapeake this skill is wasted.

Their bills are thick and pointed, more like a spike than the scoop shape of duck bills. During the breeding season, loons wear striking plumage: Heads are a dark, glossy green; wings, tails and sides are boldly patterned in black and white. Their winter plumage is less showy: Head and wings are dark, while the underparts are light.

The spectacle of vast numbers of waterfowl was one of the natural wonders that made the Chesapeake famous. Even though loons were never a major component of that spectacle, their presence in winter shows us a facet of the diverse nature of our own globally unique estuary.

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