Tuesday, May 11, 2010 1:57pm CDT

43 degrees   Rainy   Wind NE 12mph
It is a cold, rainy day.
But our loon sits faithfully on the nest.  No chance for a break.
The other loon is swimming a little ways out toward the middle of the lake but still fairly close to the nest.  This is fairly typical.  About half of the time, the loon that is off the nest is still within sight of the nest.  The other half, I am not sure where they are.  I look and I cannot find them.  They are probably still somewhere on the lake but I do not see them.  They may be diving or they may have actually flown somewhere.
Just a few minutes ago, I watched a the loon off the nest was rolled on its side preening its feathers.  It is a unique position for loons where they roll halfway over on their side exposing their pure white breast.  And they preen to keep the feathers in good condition.
Their feathers are absolutely essential for their survival.  It is their rain jacket to keep them dry.  It is their down parka to keep them warm.  If their feathers fail, they will quickly become waterlogged and cold.  They may suffer hypothermia.
But as they preen, they take oil from a gland and rub it on their feathers.  And by working the length of the feather through their beak, they reconnect all the barbs along the strands of the feather...almost like velcro.  The combination of the oil and the integrity of the feather gives them a waterproof coat that protects them from the cold and rain and lake water.  It is an amazing feat of engineering and yet simplicity.
And so the loon off the nest is taking care of its feathers by preening as it is rolled over on its side with its bright white breast exposed.
It is also doing what is known as the 'foot waggle'.
The foot waggle is where the loon actually waggles one of its feet in the air as it lays on its side.  No one knows for sure why they do this but it is a typical loon posture or activity.  There are some that say it is a way for the loon to cool off.  But I have trouble believing that.  And on a chilly day like today the argument could be made there is no need to cool off.  Plus, I feel that the leg remaining in cold or cool water will cool the loon off much better and faster than waving it around in the air.
But those are just my thoughts and feelings.  There are many people much smarter than me.  But so far there seems to be no consensus of what the purpose of the foot waggle is or what it means.
I have watched even young chicks only a few days old do it.  It is so cute to watch the little ball of black down doing the foot waggle.
I just looked right now and the other loon that had been nearby is gone.  Then I spotted him all the way across the lake.  He is swimming around another loon.   I think it probably is our "intruder loon".
There are a couple of tremolo calls from across the lake.
Then our loon on the nest answers with a few tremolo calls of her own but she does not leave the nest.
The loon on the nest has a unique hoarseness or "breaking' of her call at the end.  It is one of many  reasons why I have wondered if this is a different pair since I have not heard that cracking in the call in previous years.  It is as if she has a cold and the voice cracks.
Her head is held high and she is very much on alert and looking around as if to keep an eye on her mate across the lake.
This is probably as good a time as any to talk about body posture and what some of it means.  It will add a lot to your viewing of the loons if you understand some of what their body language is telling you.
A loon normally sits with its head upright but not held real high.  There is usually a bend in the neck in its normal posture.  This means the loon is fairly relaxed and comfortable.  The loon will turn its head from side to side, always looking for danger.  Ever alert.
There are other times when the loon will straighten its neck with its head held high.  This is a time of increased awareness and concern.  It has spotted something that has raised its level of anxiety.   It may be another loon, an eagle or a fisherman.  The loon is saying I see something that worries me and I am making sure I keep track of it.  A loon may do this while on the nest or while swimming.
At other times, the loon may lower its head while on the nest.
When it does this, it means that there is something that is making it nervous.  The lower the head is held, the more nervous it is.
There is a difference between loons how they will react to things.
I can be down by the lakeshore and one of the loons will never lower its head at all.  The other loons is more skittish.  And even though it seems to know me, sometimes it will lower its head.
The most extreme of this behavior is when the loon literally stretches out its neck and lays its head on the side of the nest.  It is often called the "hangover position".
It is as if the loon is saying "If I lay my head against the side of the nest like this, you won't be able to see me."
It will often do this before flushing off the nest and into the water if there is a perceived threat around.
If you see a loon doing this in response to your presence, it is telling you that you are too close and it is very nervous.  You should quietly back away from the nest and the loon will soon relax.
The most extreme case of this that I have seen happened a few years ago.  We were eating Sunday lunch and usually I had the feed from the cam on the television.  I was sitting with my back to the tv but one of the people said, what is she doing.  I turned to look to see the loon with its head all the way down.  All of a sudden, a pontoon appeared on the screen right by the nest.
I went outside to motion them away from the nest.
They went by next to the nest, backed up and went by again and then went forward....THREE times right next to the nest!
I did not want to yell at them and disturb the loon even more so I kept motioning for them to move away.  
There were about 6 or 8 people on the pontoon and they were close enough that I could clearly hear the driver say, "I think she's dead.  Look at that.  She's dead!!!"
They either did not see me or they ignored my motioning to them.  But they did leave.  Right after they left, the loon got off the nest and would not return for about 15 minutes.
Were the people being malicious?  I don't think so.  Were they being ignorant?  Yup!  But it is a case of they were very interested in loons but TOO interested without knowing the impact that they were having.  If this happened just once, it probably would not have too much of an impact.
But imagine if that pontoon does it.  And then a boat comes too close.  And then a canoe.  And then a jet ski.  And then a ________.  Each of those encounters takes a toll and eventually it may cause the loon to totally abandon the nest.  It is one of the "dangers" to loons nesting successfully.
"My" disruption probably will not hurt.  But my disruption added to all the other disruptions may hurt.
So it is just good to be aware of the impact that each one of us has on the success of our loons raising a new generation.
So if you and your friends are around a lake or out on the water, read the body language of the loons on a nest.  If you see them drop their head lower and lower, just quietly move away and give them their space and they will quickly relax.
A good rule of thumb is to stay at least 200 to 300 feet from a nesting loon and you will have very little adverse effect on them.  Enjoy them with your binoculars or your telescope!
One additional note....
Last night Mr Muskrat was back again.  Once again chowing down on the salad bar at the country buffet!
The loon was not happy about it at all.
It was an education for me to watch how the loon reacted and also how the muskrat reacted.
The muskrat seems to be very brazen in being very close to the loon.  I had fully expected that if he got close, she would just stab at him with her beak.  She didn't.  She opens her beak and leans toward him.  But he is just out of reach.   I never saw a full blown stab.  And that surprised me.  Maybe if he came right up to her, she would stab him.  But as long as he was a little ways away she did not.
It looked like a couple times she actually did touch him with the sharp tip of her beak but it wasn't  truly a stabbing motion that I expected to see from her.  The couple times that it appeared she touched him with her open beak, the muskrat jumped back.  And the last time he actually jumped into the water and left.  My thought was yeah, poke him good and maybe he will stay away!