Denny: Approach of winter a time for the common loon

A common loon.

A common loon.

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Winter is dropping down on us out of the Gulf of Alaska. The sun has slipped off to the south and daylight periods are getting shorter. In the Blue Mountain region about the only warm thought is that summer is approaching south of the equator.

Yet the natural world that surrounds us in Eastern Washington is still very much alive with many types of animals out and about. There are many bird species that have arrived from arctic Canada and Alaska to winter in the Columbia River basin. Some birds have also abandoned the high wallows, the high Blue Mountains and the Cascades to spend the winter with us in the lower basin.

A quick note

For backyard birders, now is the time to feed birds and the most important thing is fresh clean water for them. But if your home has free-ranging cats around it, you should consider the ethics of attracting wild birds to your yard and then having cats grab them.

Arriving now are the northern saw-whet owl, dark-eyed junco, snow bunting and Lapland longspur. Among arriving waterfowl along the Columbia River are tundra swans, Canada geese, canvasback, ring-necked duck and many others.

The one water bird that is unique in this group of water birds is the common loon (Gavia immer). This very large bird is found throughout the northern hemisphere and is known across Europe and Asia as the northern diver.

Only in North America is this family of super fishers known as loons. There are five species worldwide, all of which show up along the Columbia River. In Walla Walla County we have documented three species over 30 years of birding. The largest is the yellow-billed loon, which is 34 inches long. The smallest is the Pacific loon, at 26 inches.

Loons are iconic to many folks and are greatly admired by many Native American tribes. The birds are depicted on totem poles and other carvings of many northern tribes. It also is protected by the North American Migratory Bird Treaty Act

In this column I’d like to focus on 32-inch-long common loon. It’s a spectacular bird in its “alternate,” or breeding, plumage of green head with barred neck bands, and black body with pure white dots and bars. In winter these birds molt into what is known as winter “basic” plumage — gray/brown on the dorsal surface and pure white on the ventral surface. The plumage completely insulates the loon from the coldest water and winter winds by trapping a layer of air in its body feathers and a layer of body oil on its outer feathers.

They nest in northeast Washington on small lakes. Their breeding range in the lower 48 states is east across north Idaho, northwest Montana, then northern Minnesota, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and on east into the Northeast states. The bulk of this species population in North America breeds in Canada.

Common loons are some of the best fishers there are. Along with small fish species, they feed on marine and freshwater crustaceans. They build a floating nest, mate and raise two young, sometimes three depending on prey base.

Once on breeding territory it becomes very aggressive in defending its young and its nesting grounds. Objects of its wrath have been Canada geese, beaver, Sand hill cranes, elk, moose, fly fishermen and folks in canoes. There are many stories of protective loons even taking after float planes.

This bird’s unique call is the music of the far north, often heard during spring migration out on the Columbia River and on north onto Potholes Reservoir and Moses Lake. North of Soap Lake on Blue Lake, Lake Lenore and Banks Lake, loons are expected until freeze up.

When autumn begins these big loons depart from their lakes in the north and start south, mostly along the seacoasts, and many migrate down the Columbia River. Common loons winter in the Gulf of Mexico and central Pacific Ocean. Many winter along the eastern Pacific coast and can easily be seen in marinas and bays along the Washington and Oregon coasts.

During fall migration we have seen as many as 25 loons off the Walla Walla River delta. Anywhere from Port Kelley north through Wallula Gap to the Two Rivers Habitat Management Unit on McNary National Wildlife Refuge in western Walla Walla County they are present in moderate numbers.

The biggest threats to this beautiful native bird are mostly human-caused, such as shooting, harassment by motor boats, and poisoning by birds ingesting lead shot and fishing weights. Lead is very toxic to all wildlife, and especially to birds that use sand and grit to aid in digesting their food. It only takes one lead pellet or fishing weight to poison and kill a loon. So to protect these outstanding native birds, stop using lead and switch to steel or other non-toxic weights.

Other issues that affect these birds are pollutants in run off, oil and chemical spills, heavy metal poisoning of fish, farm chemical residues in river systems and development of lake shorelines.

I urge you to go look for a loon and gain great respect and awe for these downright powerful divers here on our doorstep. Join a Blue Mountain Audubon Society field trip to the Columbia River in spring and fall and you have an outstanding opportunity to see a loon.

You might consider coming out with us for the 40th Walla Walla Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 14. We gather at 7:30 a.m. in the Harper Joy Theatre parking lot on the Whitman College campus. It’s free and anyone is welcome.

Take care and have a great holiday season! Remember life is good.

Mike Denny is president of the Blue Mountain chapter of the National Audubon Society. He can be reached at m.denny@charter.net., or by calling weekdays between 6-8 p.m. at 529-0080.

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