In case you have not spent time following the lives of loons, here’s the scoop: Mom, and sometimes Dad, spend the whole summer nurturing one or two ‘loonettes’. Mom is never more than a few feet away at all times – feeding, nuzzling, and teaching. Real affection and strong attachment are observed within the family. Then suddenly, one day in September, the parents pack up and leave for the winter. The juveniles are left to fend for themselves and to fly south later.
I know these facts but am filled with trepidation as I watch the young loon call for his mother. Has she already left with her mate? A few days ago I heard the young loon make a proper call for the first time and observed him flapping his wings still unable to get airborne. My heart was in my throat as I scanned the lake for her, thinking that he really was not ready yet to be on his own. He has grown quickly the last few weeks and advanced much faster than the baby loon the year before which was probably a female and he, a male. Then I saw her and they were quickly swimming towards each other, nuzzling a greeting, and she diving for a tasty morsel for him. These moments showed me he was swimming further away from her watchful eye, diving for longer periods but was still missing her presence when he strayed too far and was still taking food from her.
After observing this close bond all summer I am dreading the final separation and don’t want to hear his haunting call to the deserted lake. The summer is ending and so is the baby loon’s family bond. It is sad but he must move on and create his own family. According to the research it is actually seven years before he will breed so where do these young loons hang out until they find their own lake and raise young? Much research has tried to answer these questions and one of the dilemmas for researchers is not being able to differentiate between the male and female loons.
Years ago my husband witnessed a strange sight from his canoe on Lake Obabika, west of Lake Temagami. About seventy-five loons were swimming on the lake all diving and swimming in the same direction, ignoring him and diving under his canoe. Apparently this was what researchers call a ‘social gathering’ and occurs on large, neutral (non-breeding) lakes later in the summer when the highly aggressive and territorial loon behaviour is over. But without knowing the sex, breeding status, and relationships among members of the collective, it’s hard to know what is definitely going on. It appears that socialization and cooperation play an important part as well as information sharing, such as territory availability, neighbours and rivals and intra-sexual assessment. Because the juveniles do not return to their breeding grounds until age three, this social grouping may be important for their development in these ‘gap years’. Also, they may be preparing for the long flight south and groups of wintering loons have a higher survival than solitary ones.
I have observed the loon family all summer and have seen what appears to be real affection between the mother and her young, so how easy is it for the parents to suddenly fly off and never meet their offspring again? I like to imagine that this loon will meet up with other juveniles and somehow fly south with a group, and not alone. I trust that Mother Nature has it all worked out and there will be a happy ending.
Also by Pat Lund: