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Loon Alligator

>> Monday, August 15, 2011

I associate loons with St. Regis Canoe Area because they are always there, and on my first camping trip with Sneaksleep there about 16 years ago we had an encounter with a loon that was positively magical.  As we paddled across Little Clear, we drifted up close to a solitary loon.  After a while, it dived, and swam right directly underneath our canoe.  Little Clear is in fact remarkably clear, and we could see the loon as it swam underneath us, with its wings open.  It was incredible to see, and I had never realized before then that loons open their wings under water.  That moment has stayed with me as if it happened yesterday.

I have always thought of loons as these ethereal, haunting creatures, beautiful and strange and solitary, and that moment on Little Clear certainly contributed to the magic. I still do think of loons that way, but on our recent trip to St. Regis I learned something new about loons that lends them a slightly sinister flair, too.

One lazy afternoon of our trip, several of us were gathered on the shore of the lake.  A Common Merganser swam by with her brood of 5 half-grown babies.  All cute as a button.

As we watched the babies, I noticed a disturbance in the water off to the left.  It emerged slightly a few times, enough to recognize it as a loon.

Then it went back under, swimming through the water like a creepy alligator on the prowl.  Then it disappeared. 

C said, "It will resurface about 100 feet to the right". 
My husband said, "But that's where the baby ducks are." 
I said, completely joking, "Maybe it's going to eat the babies."

Then, in the midst of the baby ducks, the loon erupted from the water like some kind of demon Leviathan, wings open and snapping greedily at those fuzzy babies. 

For their part, the ducklings fled like Satan himself was after them, running across the water for their little lives. 

The loon dove again, and emerged again, in hot pursuit of a fuzzy quacking snack.

The loon did not happen to get any of that particular group of baby ducks, at least not at that moment, but several other times in the course of the weekend I notice groups of baby ducks running across the surface of the water at full tilt.  I suspect the loon predation is a regular occurrence.

During my subsequent swims out in the lake, I did give occasional thought to the possibility of getting bitten in the butt by one of the loons, although thankfully they're smart enough not to confuse me with baby ducks.  But now?  Loon calls are still haunting and beautiful, and they are still graceful and solitary.  But now I think of them as the hunters they are, too.


Woodswalker August 15, 2011 at 11:38 AM  

Is it possible the loon was chasing the mergansers away -- or trying to destroy them -- as competition (mergansers also dive for fish, as do loons), rather than trying to eat them?

Woodswoman Extraordinaire August 15, 2011 at 11:44 AM  

It is certainly possible Woodswalker! I don't know all that much about loons. I found a couple of reports of them both eating ducklings, and just killing and leaving them floating, but it's hard to verify either. But I hope to ask someone at Cornell Lab of Ornithology next time I'm down that way. I'd like to know more.

Hugh August 15, 2011 at 6:29 PM  

Amazing. I grew up in Ontario, spending summers on lakes that contained both loons and mergs, and never saw anything like that. We think of loons as fish-eaters, but protein is protein. And look how big the loon is compared to Momma Merg. It reminds me of orcas going after sea lion pups. Woodswalker's question is an interesting one.

Louise August 15, 2011 at 6:57 PM  

Be sure to tell us what you find out when you go to Cornell. In fact, why don't you send some of those pictures to them and see what they have to say. I want to know, and I want to know now! ;-D

Ellen Rathbone August 17, 2011 at 1:36 PM  

Well, I do know that loons are famous for attacking each other. I've seen several loon skeletons that have holes right thru the breastbone caused by that spear-like beak. They are very territorial and not too happy to share. There might just be something Machiavellian about this one chasing the chicks.

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