The winter brings feathered visitors from the north to the Chesapeake Bay. For anyone that lives near the water, it becomes obvious that waterfowl are suddenly more common as they escape the frosty north.
One of the largest of these birds is the common loon. It is thinner and sleeker than a Canada goose, but about the same length. In the water, it sometimes barely has its back showing, and when it dives it is like a submarine slipping underwater. The loon can easily stay under for ten minutes and swim a hundred yards in one breath.
But its most impressive physical features are a dagger-like bill and ruby red eyes that glow when the sunlight is at the correct angle.
The common loon is a monogamous bird with a long life span, averaging over 20 years. The young will rest on their parents’ back and dive out of harms’ way at an adult’s call. By the end of the summer the young fend for themselves and become strong enough to migrate south, usually with their parents.
After that, things get tough for young loons. The next spring if the young try to return to the same nursery area, they will be strongly forced away. They become sexually mature at age two and spend that middle year being loners and learning how to survive.
Adults spend their summers in clear northern lakes catching medium-sized fish and scaring little children at night with their loud and plaintive voices. They nest up north and typically have two to four offspring which they guard intensely.
As loons spend time in the Bay region, their appearance and behavior actually change. In their northern homes, they have a distinct sharp angular marking with a dark head, black bill, back and neck with a white necklace and they are quite loud as they talk to each other from seemingly miles away.
As they winter here, they are a drabber gray with a pale bill and become mute. I have never heard a peep from a wintering loon.
They are wanderers that can be seen almost at any location along the Bay, even far up a tributary. Several are frequently seen along the shore at North Beach. I have seen them throughout the South River. Another common place to see them is at the inlet at Ocean City.
Two other species of loons, the Pacific loon and the red-throated loon have been found in our area on rare occasions. One late spring day two years ago, a red-throated loon startled bathers at Sandy Point State Park by swimming in between them underwater as it chased fish. Several people exited the water to escape the large pointy-billed bird.
Loons were commonly hunted throughout their range in the past, but now hunting loons is illegal everywhere except in North Carolina.