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Blane Klemek column: Common loon is anything but common

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Sitting in camp on the last morning of a Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness adventure that my son and I recently enjoyed, I asked him what he liked the most about his first-ever trip into Canoe Country. He thought seriously for a moment and answered confidently, "Going to sleep and waking up to the calls of loons."

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Indeed, nothing surpasses the exuberant, mournful and haunting calls of Minnesota's state bird, the common loon. In the Boundary Waters, loons are especially plentiful -- not to mention being a hallmark species of a bird that is emblematic of the wilderness of Northern Minnesota.

Throughout our glorious week of fishing, canoeing and camping in the Canoe Country, we delighted in the sights and sounds of loons every day. The beautiful "yodel" call, which is the territorial call of male loons, was produced by one particular male every morning and night from the waters in front of our peninsula campsite.

As well, another call, the "wail," which is often described as "mournful," was regularly heard from loons in search of one another. I repeatedly heard loons' wails from distant bays that sometimes were answered by other loons located elsewhere on the water or nearby lakes.

The common loon is a member of an ancient group of birds. You'll find the family, Gaviidae, at the very beginning of most bird guidebooks that follow traditional avifaunal taxonomic order. Only five species are found worldwide: Arctic loon, Pacific loon, red-throated loon, yellow-billed loon and the common loon.

All loons are highly specialized aquatic birds. They eat fish and make their living swimming and diving while hunting for fish. Equipped with dagger-like beaks, powerful legs set farther posterior than other waterfowl, and webbed toes, loons are marvelously adapted for life on and within the water. And that's not all.

Loons fly with a command of grace, power and speed largely unrivaled in the bird world. Common loons routinely reach flight speeds in excess of 70 miles per hour. But to become airborne, a loon needs a long and unobstructed liquid runway to run upon while wildly flapping its wings. Once adequate speed has been reached, the principles of lift are achieved.

On the other hand, a loon's comfort zone, its true medium, is clean, clear water. As a sight hunter, it's imperative that a loon be able to see its finned prey as well as overtake and capture its quarry quickly. This is where the loon's skeletal composition becomes important.

Most birds' bones are relatively hollow in structure. Hollow bones are lighter in weight and thus enable birds to accomplish and maintain flight easier. That withstanding, having lighter bones would be maladaptive for loons. For them, solid and heavier bones are what are needed. With such anatomy, loons are less buoyant and so can achieve maximum dive potential.

Yet, there's even more. Loons are able to compress the feathers on their body. Such action effectively squeezes out air that may be trapped between densely arranged feathers. Again, buoyancy is reduced. Couple this ability, along with the anatomical features of solid bones and powerful swimming legs, the loon becomes, in essence, an avian torpedo.

The unusual body design of loons, the very design so perfect for water, is a hindrance on land. Loons are awkward terrestrial creatures, so they choose nest sites that are close to or on the water. The nests are large and made of grass and weeds. And because of the difficulty loons have in successfully nesting on some Minnesota lakes, especially recreational lakes and those heavily human-populated, some people have had great success with artificial loon nesting platforms. These floating rafts are designed in such a way to allow loons to climb up on, build a nest and lay, incubate and hatch their clutches of eggs.

With respect to raising families, another of the loons' calls, the "hoot," which is associated with mated pairs, and especially those caring for chicks, was once again heard and appreciated on my recent trip to the Boundary Waters.

I was cleaning fish on my canoe paddle, which was resting on top of the upside-down canoe, when I heard the soft hoots of a loon. Turning to face the lake, I was surprised to see in the misty fog an adult loon only a few dozen yards from the rocky shore, swimming toward its mate and two down-covered chicks. Both adults hooted softly to one another as I watched one of the parents feed minnows to each of their hungry chicks.

Another loon call that's familiar to many people is the "tremolo" call. This hearty call, usually described as "laughing," is given by those loons excited or alarmed. The wavering call is also produced by loons flying over a lake in order to announce his or her presence to any loons that might be swimming on the lakes below them.

I wish the common loon would have been given a different name. While perhaps more abundant and widespread than other species of loons, the common loon is anything but common. What with their remarkable voices alone, common loons are set apart from all other birds as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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