Wednesday, May 20, 2009 5:38am CDT


70 degrees  High Scattered Clouds  Wind South 14mph


Right now it is a peaceful morning just before sunrise for the loons with some breeze stirring ripples for the loon's.

But according to the weather forecast, that is going to change.  There are predictions for today of very high winds and temperatures close to 90 degrees.  All of this ahead of a low pressure system approaching from the Dakotas that will bring the winds before lowering the temperatures tomorrow.

We often call Minnesota "the theatre of seasons", but this year seems to be unusually so.  It is a  multi-act play.

Some of you commented yesterday about the loons open mouth.  The loon was panting a lot yesterday in the heat and sun.  It reached 88 degrees here at the lake while in the Twin Cities it shattered the record with a temperature of 97 degrees!  So our loons were indeed warm sitting on the nest.

But to give you an idea of the contrast, the highs in northern Minnesota near the Canadian border were only in the 40's and 50's yesterday!!    There was a great temperature difference across the state.  So I am not sure if the "theatre" qualifies as a 'comedy' or a 'tragedy'.  It has been a different spring.

But the loons just seem to take it in stride.  It is all in a day's work of sitting on and incubating and protecting their eggs.

I have promised you that we would talk about feet and legs and to try to reconstruct some of the blog that was lost a few days ago.  So are you ready?  Here we go.

Yesterday we talked about one of the possibilities of how the loon got its name.  From the Scandinavian word for clumsy.

And they are very clumsy on land.   Most of that clumsiness is due to their feet and their legs.

Some loon researchers have figured out that if our feet were the same size as a loons foot, we would have feet that were a size 45 triple R!!!  Can you say "clown feet"?!!!  Their feet are huge.

But this is one of the things that makes loons such powerful swimmers.  With feet that large, they are able to use them to swim very fast and those large feet also allow them to make turns very quickly underwater as they chase small fish.  Their feet are webbed and it gives them their own built-in swimming flippers.

But their is something else that helps to make them powerful swimmers.  And that is their legs.

If you watch closely when they are swimming near the nest, and the water and light are just right, you can see their feet and legs underwater.  You will notice that their legs look like they are way at the back of their body.  They sort of just 'hang' off the very back of the loon's body and go a little bit off to the sides.

This gives you the first hint that there is something different about the loon.  Ducks and other waterbirds have feet that are more under the middle of the bird.  But a loon's feet and legs are way at the back of the body.

Why is that?

OK, do this exercise.  Stretch your arm out in front of you.  Imagine for a moment that your arm is the leg of a chicken.  The upper part of your arm is the 'drumstick'.  The lower part of your arm is the lower part of the chicken's leg.  And your wrist and your hand are the chicken's foot.

Move your arm around.  Think of how a chicken walks as you do it.  (The picture in my mind right now is thousands of people sitting at their computers in the office or at home waving their arms like a chicken walking.  With their coworkers and family looking at them out of the corner of their eye wondering if they have finally gone crazy.  Or "loony"!)

A chicken has full movement of its leg to walk around.  And the leg is placed centrally on its body so that it can balance as it walks.

Now hold the upper part of your arm tightly against your body.  Pretend that there is a towel wrapped around your upper arm and your body that holds your arm there.

Now try the same movement that you tried before.  You can move the lower part of your arm - the forearm and your hand - but you cannot move the upper part of your arm because there is a towel holding it next to your body.  Wave the lower part of your arm and notice how much different it looks and feels.

This is what a loon is faced with.

Because you see, a loon's upper leg or 'drumstick' is encased inside its body skin.  It is held tightly against its body.  It cannot move it like a chicken or a duck or a turkey does.  All it can do is move the lower part of its leg.

Now this has advantages and disadvantages.

By enclosing the upper part of the leg within the body skin, it makes the lower part of the leg look like it comes off the comes off the very back of the body.  The advantage is that this placement of the leg helps the loon to be a very powerful swimmer.  So the combination of the large foot and the leg placed near the back of the body, makes the loon one of the most powerful swimmers around.

But it puts them at a distinct disadvantage when they are on land.  Unlike a chicken or other birds which can easily walk around, the loon does not have the movement or configuration of its legs that are built for walking.  Swimming yes.  Walking, no.  To see it once again, hold your upper arm against your body and wave your lower arm around and imagine the difference in mobility for the loon.

You get a great view of this when the loon gets on the nest during a nest change.  The leg is way at the back of the loons body.  And this is why it looks so clumsy.  And not only 'looks' clumsy, it is clumsy on land.  This is why it just sort of waddles and flops as it gets onto the nest.

It also helps you understand what we talked about before as well - that if a loons happens to land on dry ground instead of water,  it is almost helpless.  It can only waddle with great difficulty and actually moves more by just flopping as it thrusts its body forward.  And without water to take off from, it cannot become airborne.

So now you know about the loon's feet and legs.  And you know more about what makes the loon even more special and different.  So go back to waving your arms around and showing your coworkers what it is like for a loon to walk!

Have a great day watching these beautiful birds.  And marveling at all that is unfolding before your eyes!


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