Friday, May 8, 2009 5:38am CDT


39 degrees     Clear Sky       Calm


First light brings a view of a loon patiently sitting on the nest and protecting its eggs in the cool morning air.

The sun hasn't even peeked over the horizon yet, but in a few minutes its warming rays will begin to also warm this loon and stir all other life into action.  Not that the loon needs warming.  They are very well protected against the cold by its feathers.  After all it is no problem for it to swim in waters that still have ice in them.  And as it dives to great depths in search of food, it dives below the thermocline, that invisible boundary between cold water and warmer water, into very cold water.

So even this morning in the cool air, our loon still once in a while breathes with an open beak which allows it to get rid of excess body heat.  When it does this, some of you may think that it is calling.  It is simply regulating its body temperature.

Loons seldom call while they are on the nest.  Most of the time they are silent.  At some point, we do want to put a microphone on the nest so that you can hear all the sounds.  The wind.  The waves.  Maybe even bugs flying by.  Or boats going by.  Or people.  Or the myriad of sounds that make up so much of our world.  But only very rarely would you hear the loon calling from the nest.

I am not sure why they remain so silent while on the nest but I can believe that part of it may be so that they do not alert predators to their location.

This nest is very much out in the open.  There is no cover over it.  And that is true of most  "natural" nests as well.  They are open to the sky and very visible to predators from overhead.  Eagles are the big threat.  And loons and eagles obviously have a very long history together.  Because loons hate eagles!  And an eagle is one of the few predators that will actually be able to kill an adult loon

(Right now the loon is reared up on its legs and once again turning and adjusting the eggs...the action that you have seen so many times.  Somewhere out on the lake, its mate fishes and swims.)

You will remember a couple years ago I told you about an eagle specifically targeting the loon on the nest.  The eagle dove towards the loon.  The frightened loon bolted off the nest and dove underwater.  When it came up, the eagle once again swooped down at it.  So it dove under water again.  The eagle circled overhead, watching for the loon.  When it came up, the eagle once again dove at the loon which immediately dove under water to escape.  This game of cat and mouse continued all the way across the lake.

And it was during this time that the loon was frightened off the nest that 3 huge waves swept over the nest and filled it with ice cold water.  I thought for sure that we had lost both eggs.  But miraculously, one of the eggs survived and a healthy chick was born a couple weeks later and grew up to fly south in the fall.  But the other egg did not make it.

When we x-rayed the egg, the x-ray showed a chick inside that had started to develop.  But by its size, we could tell that the chick inside the egg had stopped developing probably exactly at a time that would fit with the cold water filling the nest.  It was more than the chick inside could take.

And so loons have a long history with eagles.

At the very sight of an eagle, they will begin their alarm call.  And they will often leave the nest at the first sight of an eagle.

There have been times when I have been outside working and have heard the loons calling excitedly and I have wondered what is bothering them.  I have gone to look to see if a boat has gotten too close to the nest.  Or if something else has upset them.  On several occasions, I cannot see anything that should be bothering them.  No boats.  No people.  No eagles flying overhead.  And then I have spotted it.

A small black dot circling high in the sky.  So high up you  can hardly make out what it is.  But sure enough, it is an eagle circling overhead.

And even though it is so high you can hardly see it, the loon has seen it.  The loon has identified it as an eagle.  And the loon has identified it as a threat and is calling one of its alarm calls.  There are almost no other birds to which a loon will react in the same way.

A great blue heron (which is huge and comparable in size to an eagle) will fly over and the loon hardly notices.  An osprey, which is related to an eagle,  will fly over and the loon hardly gives it a second look.  But let an eagle fly over, and the loon goes wild and becomes very concerned for its safety and the safety of its eggs.

It is a conundrum when there is a contest between loons and eagles.  Because both of them are protected species.  The eagle being our national symbol.  And the loon being the Minnesota state bird!  But I have to admit....while I like both of them and they both are beautiful and majestic, I am partial to the loon.  That probably does not surprise you.

So now as the first golden rays of the sun are hitting the nest and our loon, enjoy watching them today.  The day is forecast to be a wonderful spring day.  However, there is the possibility of thunderstorms later this afternoon or evening.  When a bad storm comes through, there is always concern for what the wind and the waves and hail might do.  So let's watch and see what today brings for our wonderful loons.


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