morning at the marsh

It’s amazing how much you can see early in the morning before the cyclists and hikers have hit the trails around the local marsh.  And it always amazes me to find such a diversity of wildlife inhabiting a small wild oasis in the urban landscape! I’m sure if I had spent more time on this hot, humid morning, I would have seen even more.

floating island-

Dense mats of cattails float around the marsh propelled by the prevailing water flow.  They attract a wide variety of wildlife that may hunt from their edges, nest in their stalks, and hide within small crevices from the peeping eyes of photographers.

great blue heron-

Great Blue Herons are often found along the shoreline, usually obscured by the vegetation.

great blue heron-

Another heron was making its way down toward the shoreline — perhaps the mate of the other one?

great egret-

I can always count on seeing a Great Egret or two foraging near the edge of the marsh.

green heron-

What else is hiding here in this vegetation near the shore? A Green Heron pops up to see if I’m a dangerous predator.

green heron-

A less nervous juvenile Green Heron hunted in the shallows.

common loon-

Out in the water, a Common Loon swam by.

double crested cormorant-

Nearby, a double-crested Cormorant surfaced from its dive, and took a look around.

I spotted something white way out in the middle of the marsh, swimming quickly away from me, and grabbed a quick shot of a Trumpeter Swan family with their two, seemingly newly hatched, cygnets.

trumpeter swan family-

It’s a bit late to find these newly hatched chicks; perhaps the first nesting failed and these are result of a second nesting attempt. The chicks have a lot of growing to do before they reach the body size of the adults which can weigh more than 20 lb.

trumpeter swan family-

the underwater hunter

Quite by accident, while I was out in the Grass Lake marshes looking for the ospreys that should have been near their platform nest (the one usurped by a Canada Goose), a lone Common Loon popped up right in front of me.

Common Loon-

The morning had the perfect kind of filtered sunlight to bring out all the “color” in this black and white bird. For example, I’ve never noticed before how just the right angle of light turns the usually dark feathers below its white necklace into a turquoise band.  The loon’s head feathers are actually faintly iridescent.

During the breeding season, both male and female loons have brilliant red eyes, which might well be an indicator of their readiness to mate.  But loons are fiercely territorial and protective of their chicks, driving off other loons or intruders (like Canada Geese) far larger than they are, and it has been suggested that their red eyes are a threat advertisement of their presence.

Common Loon-viewing fish underwater

The loon frequently dipped its head below the water while paddling around.  It looks like a snorkeler checking out underwater life.

Common Loon-

Several times, following a bit of snorkeling, the loon would quickly dive below the surface, never making a sound or a splash.  I never saw it bring up a fish to swallow, but loons often swallow their smaller prey while underwater.

The Common Loon, or Great Northern Diver, as it is known throughout its range in Eurasia, has some unusual anatomical adaptations for its underwater life:

  • solid, instead of the hollow bones that characterize most birds, decrease the bird’s buoyancy in water and allow it to sink quickly during a dive
  • legs are placed so far to the rear of its body, loons can’t stand up on land, but must push themselves forward on their belly
  • rather short wings decrease drag as the bird propels itself through the water, but the trade-off is that reduced lift provided by the wings requires a long space for taking off into the air

But how does a bird that depends on its eyes for hunting underwater see both in air and in water?  Some have suggested that the birds’ third eyelid (nictatating membrane) which usually has a protective function, is more transparent in loons and other diving birds, and acts like a pair of goggles to preserve an air space between the pupil and the water.  Check out the video below for a good illustration of the underwater swimming activity of these unusual birds.

Common Loon-

Photos I would love to have taken…

I rarely get close enough to Common Loons to get a decent photo, as they typically swim far from the shores of our local lakes.

Common Loons

An unexpected bonus to find a pair of loons near the shore, but I had to climb through a lot of shrubbery to get a clear view.

Retired Minnesota state park ranger and photo naturalist Paul Sundberg has posted an exceptional three-day photo story of a loon family that is a must-share with my readers.  Please click on the link below to view Paul’s photos and description of the first three days of loon chicks’ lives.

http://www.paulsundbergphotography.com/Photo-of-the-Week/Photo-of-the-Week-2016/July-8-2016/

an unexpected mystery bird

juvenile Common Loon-

What strange-looking bird is that, swimming through the multi-hued water?  The reflections in the water come from the birch, evergreen conifers, and the few oaks still retaining orange-brown leaves that line the shore of Lake Vadnais.

While watching Redheads and Ring-necked Ducks the other day on the St. Paul reservoir at Lake Vadnais, I spotted this lone bird, repeatedly diving while unfortunately swimming away from me.  It didn’t look like a duck, or a grebe, so perhaps it was a loon — but like no loon I’ve seen before.

pair of common loons

Common Loons I photographed in May have distinctive dark heads, black beaks, white breasts, and spotted backs.  This is the typical breeding plumage seen in loons from about March to September.  During the winter, Common Loons have gray heads and necks (see illustration below).

juvenile Common Loon-

Unfortunately, the bird was just too far away to get a good shot with the telephoto lens, even by cropping the image.  It has a loon-looking bill, but the colors are not really typical of the winter plumage of a Common Loon either.

common loon plumages-Sibley Guide

A little research on the plumages of the various Loon species reveals that mystery bird is most likely a juvenile Common Loon, judging from the brownish head coloration, pale bill, partial white neck collar, and scalloped brown and white plumage of the back feathers.  This illustration is from the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of North America.

Young Common Loons are on their own about 12 weeks after hatching, while their parents prepare for migration south to coastal waters of North America.  Juvenile birds remain on the lakes where they were raised, sometimes gathering in small groups, and migrate much later in the Fall than their parents — their route pre-programmed as an instinctive behavior.

Unlike their parents, though, these young birds remain in coastal environments for another couple of years, only returning north as mature adults in their third year. However, even then, they may not breed until they are six years old, which implies that these birds are relatively long-lived in the wild.  In fact, the longest-lived Common Loon was determined to be 24 years old, returning each year to the same lake in Michigan to breed.

Loon legs

The signature bird of the northern forests, the Common Loon, is an adept swimmer and diver, a speedy flyer (up to 70 mph on migration), but a pathetic walker.

common loons

With their spear-shaped bills, conical heads, and torpedo-shaped bodies, these are sleek aquatic machines capable of chasing and gobbling up fish underwater.

Pushing the adaptation for efficiency in the water by moving the legs far back on its body to act like propellers has made this bird totally unsuited for a terrestrial existence.

common loon stretching its leg

You can’t really appreciate just how far back the loon’s legs are, even when you see the bird stretching those legs while on the water.

common loon flying

This view of a loon flying overhead illustrates just how far back the leg placement is.

Walking on land requires leg placement under the body, not behind it, such that the center of gravity of the mass of the bird is more or less right over the legs which support it.

bird leg postition in gull, duck, swan, and pelican

Heavier-bodied birds might waddle a bit as they walk but at least they are upright and mobile on land.

Loons only come on land to mate and to tend to the eggs in their nest, which they place close to the water’s edge.  Instead of getting their legs under them to stand upright, they use those rear-placed legs to shove them forward on their bellies.

common-loon-moving-on-land

A “bird” out of water:  kind of awkward.  Photo from: birdinginformation.com

And as the video below shows, their movement onto their nest is slow and awkward. (You might want to turn down the volume of sound when playing the video. The loon moves onshore to its nest at about 0:40 into the video.)

Not Minnesota nice

I’ve spent the last few days watching life along the lakeshore in Alexandria, Minnesota.  If you sit quietly on the end of the dock, a procession of life wanders by:  white pelicans, cormorants, bald eagles, loons, various ducks, etc.  But one sighting was a bit unusual.

A solitary Common Loon frequents this particular bay of Lake Le Homme Dieu and regularly serenades with his ethereal, plaintive calls morning and evening.  He/she floated by preening and stretching on this early morning.

loon

The foot stretching took quite a while, as did the preening of all the feathers on its back.

The foot stretching took quite a while, as did the preening of all the feathers on its back.

Next, a family of newly hatched Wood Ducklings floated by.

13 little ones followed their mother in tight formation.  Keeping close together turns out to be very important.

13 little ones followed their mother in tight formation. Keeping close together turns out to be very important.

Oh look, the loon is back.  Mother duck markedly increased her swimming speed and the little ones followed.

Oh look, the loon is back. Mother duck markedly increased her swimming speed and the little ones followed.

Suddenly, mother duck flew a short distance toward the shore, but then flew back directly at the loon, veering off right before hitting it.  I was watching her, so I didn’t see what the loom was doing.  The ducklings scattered to the shore like bullets.

But, the loon suddenly started thrashing and flapping in the water like it had caught something.

loon attack

loon attack

What have you got in your feet there, Mr/Ms Loon?

What have you got in your feet there, Mr/Ms Loon?

I wondered if it had caught one of the ducklings, so I googled “do loons eat baby ducks”. Guess what, they do, and there are several reports of this behavior, the most interesting of which was a loon acting like an alligator swimming low in the water and attacking from below.  Click here to read about “loon alligators”.  Apparently, loons will attack adult ducks and even Canada Geese, and regularly use underwater stealth in their attack.

And I thought they ate fish.  Not such a nice state bird afterall.

Charismatic (Minnesota) Fauna

Several fellow Cuba travelers and I visited a former Army ammunition plant (now wildlife area) on a cold, dreary morning today, but we saw about 40 species of birds there.  Among them were a couple of the species photographers love to capture up-close because they are so charismatic. Unfortunately one of them was quite far away.

One of a pair of osprey perched about 1/4 mile from its nest where its mate was resting.

One of a pair of osprey perched about 1/4 mile from its nest where its mate was resting.

I think this is the other adult, whose head is just barely visible, perhaps sitting on eggs or chicks to keep them warm on this frigid day.

I think this is the other adult, whose head is just barely visible, perhaps sitting on eggs or chicks to keep them warm on this frigid day.

We tried to get closer for a better shot but made the bird nervous and it took off.

We tried to get closer for a better shot but made the bird nervous and it took off.

Bad light, moving target, but the head was in focus.

Bad light, moving target, but the head was in focus.

The bird landed in a tree that was closer to us, and in marginally better light.

The bird landed in a tree that was closer to us, and in marginally better light.

There are three osprey nests in this wildlife area, which is managed by the U.S. Army.  Unfortunately, it is closed to the public most of the time, or I would be walking around there every day.

Osprey are common world-wide, but are unusual in that they are the only species in their family.  Not an eagle, not a hawk, nor a falcon, but sharing some of their characteristics, it is a unique and successful specialist on catching fish. They can turn their outer toes backward, like owls, forming a pincer to snag fish.  Sharp spicules on the toe pads and backward pointed scales on the underside of the talons bite into the fish to stabilize it while the bird is flying.

Just as we were leaving the area, my husband spotted a pair of Common Loons (also called Great Northern Loon) swimming close to shore.

Common Loon

Their plumage is so water repellent, you can see droplets beading up on the bird's head.

Their plumage is so water repellent, you can see droplets beading up on the bird’s head.

Loons are powerful flyers, clocking in at more than 70 mph, and can launch themselves like a torpedo in the water, performing kick-turns to change direction abruptly when their prey does.  But their legs are placed so far back on their bodies to enable their underwater maneuvers that they have trouble taking off without a long runway of up to 1/4 mile of open water.  These two loons were swimming in a small lake, so I wonder how they will manage to lift off to finish their migration north.

Common Loons are found throughout North American, Europe and Asia, breeding in northern, inland lakes in the summer and wintering along the coasts of the continents.  According to the Cornell Bird Lab website, a family of loons (adults and two chicks) will eat almost a half-ton of fish over the nesting period (about 12-15 weeks).  So when you see Loons on a lake, you know the fishing is good there.