When ‘our loons’ don’t look like Minnesota’s state bird

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Common loons look very different in winter compared to the images we normally see of them. Above, a loon in winter plumage off the coast of North Carolina, and below, an adult loon back in the quiet summer waters of the Upper Midwest. (Photos by Bob Drieslein)

My retired parents winter in North Carolina, and I’m visiting them this holiday week. We’ve spent some hours beachcombing and birdwatching national seashore coastal areas near the Outer Banks. It’s not exactly warm, but unlike Minnesota in December, we’ve got access to open water.

Shorebirds are everywhere, especially brown pelicans, terns (Forster’s), northern gannets, cormorants, and seagulls of all sizes. Chalk it up to good timing but my Dad says he’s seeing more birds here than ever before.

Common Loon, Thousand Island Lake, MichiganWalking the shoreline yesterday, I noticed a familiar outline bobbing in the Atlantic Ocean, but the critter didn’t look quite right. Upon further review, I realized what I was seeing: a common loon in winter plumage.

I’ve probably seen a half-dozen loons the past 24 hours, three individuals and a trio feeding together in the waves. Whiter and grayer in their non-breeding garb, the state bird of Minnesota looks surprisingly different from its handsome, dark summer Sunday’s best.

To be accurate, the loons I’m seeing likely spend their summers in the northeastern United States and eastern Canada. Our Great Lakes loons mostly migrate to the Gulf of Mexico but they certainly resemble the loons I’m seeing now.

Coastlines are a remarkably different environment than the freshwater lakes of northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Ontario. Waves, tidal forces, volatile weather like hurricanes, a whole host of different animals (including presumably some serious predators) and corrosive salt water, lots of it.

During some past Outdoor News Radio broadcasts, Stan Tekiela and I have discussed this topic, and he said loons have the ability to secrete the salt they absorb through glands near their eyes. That’s quite an adaptation and places our loons in a small, unique category of creatures that can survive both fresh- and saltwater environs.

Between its change in appearance and surroundings, the common loon in December almost seems like an entirely different bird than they one lake homeowners across Minnesota so revere. Even their red eyes turn brown during the winter.

And I’m wasting my time anticipating a distinctive loon tremolo or yodel call, even if I could hear it over the pounding surf. Loons reserve their vocalizations for the breeding season and establishing territories, which occurs back in the safer landscape of northern lakes.

We sometimes ask: Why do birds migrate? Why expend so much energy flying thousands of miles back north each spring when there’s ample open water and food along America’s coastlines? Why not stay year-round and nest here?

Watching these birds survive and navigate this challenging coastal habitat provides some of the answer. A calm Minnesota lake brimming with dumb freshwater fish indeed seems like a peaceful, quiet refuge to feed and raise young. It’s worth the trip.

Deep North naturalists preach the need to protect the breeding grounds our states contain for all sorts of migratory birds. Seeing the full-circle of our state’s bird’s migration helps bring it home: We need to continue protecting our cherished north country landscape to ensure that the call of the common loon will resonates across the region for generations.

Categories: Rob Drieslein

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