Our loon of the wilds

Bruce Mactavish
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The boreal forest is the label given to a wide belt of land stretching across the middle latitudes of Canada.

Generally speaking, it is the coniferous forest region that dominates the terrain between the deciduous forests and prairies of southern Canada and the Arctic tundra.

This also describes the summer breeding range for the common loon.

Common loons need space in the boreal forest. They need big lakes and numerous smaller ponds. They need solitude and wild shorelines.

Newfoundland and Labrador has what it takes in spades. We have our full quota of common loons.  

Loons are attractive, elegant creatures full of mood and character. They seem at peace with the world around them and are coolly in control of their every move.

They laugh when they come up on the other side of the canoeist trying to anticipate the location of its next surfacing. Loons are 90 per cent wary, 10 per cent curious and always unpredictable. The call of the loon drifting over a forested lake touches the primal core of humans like no other bird.

Getting good loon photographs is a challenge. Being such a well-dressed and charismatic bird, everyone enjoys a nice loon picture.

I’ve been lucky only a few times, having loons come up near me, where they were not expecting me to be. Even then, getting the perfect light that reveals the deep, forest-green iridescence of the neck is a matter of luck.

Lisa de Leon recently had some good luck with of a pair of common loons on Fourth Pond in Goulds. Arriving in her car, she saw two loons near shore dive under the water.

She assumed they would surface in the middle of the pond, but no, they came up even closer to shore. She as usual had her camera ready and got some nice photos from close range.

The loons did not recognize her car as danger and did not know Lisa was inside — or did they?

Feeding a loon

The best loon story I ever heard was from an avid trout fisherman in Long Harbour.

Andy Murphy said there was one particular loon back over the country where he went trouting that he could whistle down out of the sky.

It would circle the pond, land in the water, swim over to him and wait for Andy to throw it a trout or two. The loon happily accepted all the trout Andy was willing to give up.

As unbelievable as that sounds, it gets even better. He found its nest and could hand-feed trout to the loon while it stayed on the nest incubating eggs.

Taming the wildness in a loon is like taming a wolf. Andy had somehow gained the confidence of one of the smartest and wariest birds of the forest.

I would not have thought it possible, but I’ve seen the pictures that prove it.

Pond too small

My ultimate loon photo opportunity was almost cheating.

Annamarie Beckel emailed last July concerned about the welfare of a loon in the duck pond by the Bowring Park playground in

St. John’s.

The next morning, on my way to work, I stopped in and, to my disbelief, there it was, a perfect common loon looking totally out of place in that little cement duck pond.

My instinct was to hide behind a park bench and get the camera out.

As it turned out, the loon was not especially wary anymore. It had apparently been there for a couple of days.

It was a sorry sight to see the majestic bird swimming around the edge of the circular cement pool. It would stop where it had the widest stretch of pool while facing into the wind and make a run for it. The heavy loon pattered over the water flapping like mad, but then put on the air brakes to prevent crashing into the cement wall on the other side.

There was not enough room to gain flight. The loon had no escape.

I called a friend of mine in the Canadian Wildlife Service, Pierre Ryan.

He and some of his buddies were able to capture the bird, with a considerable effort. They took it to Paddy’s Pond and released it.

This was a happy ending for a loon, which must have mistaken the size of the pond in the fog.

Meanwhile, it provided me with an exceptional opportunity to photograph a loon at close range.  Loons always dive to evade danger, so we rarely actually see one going to wing.

Getting a chance to photograph a common loon during takeoff at close range — well, it just ain’t gonna happen in the wild.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental

consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at wingingitone@yahoo.ca, or by phone at 722-0088.

Organizations: Canadian Wildlife Service

Geographic location: Southern Canada, Arctic, Newfoundland and Labrador Goulds Bowring Park

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