You may hear birders speak of “spark birds.” Spark birds are those species or individuals that stimulate a serious interest in more serious birding. For some, that bird experience may be their first foray into birding… a species they have never seen, nor do they know what it is. For others, there was some initial interest, and the bird’s sighting or behavior pushed it to obsessive birding. This writer has distinct memories of watching for hours the gentle dives and behavior of a migrating Common Loon on a NE Indiana lake one spring afternoon. Before my interests swung heavy towards the owls, my first group of birds that really drew me were the loons.
The southern rim of Lake Michigan is a great location to observe migrating loons. Loon observation programs hosted at the state park always draw an interest from casual birders and park visitors. They’re simply interesting and popular birds. Even Aldo Leopold wrote about the plaintive siren of the wilderness. Leopold said, “the Lord did well when he fitted the loon and his music in this lonesome land.” We don’t always hear the eerie yodel across Lake Michigan, but a spring morning, with hope of hearing them, makes one visit the beach on an April sunrise. If you’re lucky, you may hear them during a calm dawn.
Large groups of Common Loons will stage in the Indiana waters in November. A big Thanksgiving cold front will push hundreds, and occasionally thousands, off the lake and over a lakefront observer, heading to warmer waters. Most Common Loons will push out of Indiana by winter time.
Many decades ago, you wouldn’t take notice of different looking Common Loons. The Red-throated Loon was a rare sight in the state. Sometime in the mid 1990s, numbers of Red-throated Loons on Lake Michigan started to increase. Not just in Indiana, but in all the Lake Michigan bordering states. This increase was not subtle, but exponential. There are theories on population, food supplies, or climate change, though none have been pin pointed to the reason we see so many now. Red-throated Loons are the loon most likely to winter on Lake Michigan. Those moving through will winter off the Atlantic coast in areas farther north than most Common Loons will winter.
Thus, a loon seen this time of year is likely to be a Red-throated Loon. From a distance, they can look similar, but their much smaller size, excess white, and smaller up-turned bill help to identify them. A long distance scan on a sunny day reveals a brighter, shinier loon than the Common Loons appear. A great guide on IDing our loons found in NW Indiana can be read here. Unfortunately, that’s how most of us see the loons… from a far distance.
To see a loon up close is a special experience. You can see the amazing adaptations that make them deep diving experts. You can see the special color of gray they possess, as well as the deep red eyes that help them see better below the water. These same adaptations hurt them when it comes to flying. With their legs so far back, they require a runway of sorts to take off. This really becomes a problem when they find a nice shimmering surface sparkling like their favorite lake, only it’s really just a wet parking lot sparkling with lights. If they don’t figure this out in time, their legs and feet can be damaged by the crash landing.
This was the case this week with a wintering Red-throated Loon in Michigan City. It crash landed on Coolspring Road and was picked up by a helpful family. A few quick emails later, and we were able to help assess the bird’s injuries and arrnage for it’s freedom in some real water. The next morning, the bird was released in the freshwater estuary found at the Portage Lakefront Park and Riverwalk. After some brief preening and water drinking, it took to diving right away and will hopefully find an abundance of food there for a while, or at least until it decides to find the open water out in the middle of the lake. Chances are good it will still be there for a few days if folks want to go look for him or her.
Update 2/11/14: Unfortunately, presumably the same Red-throated Loon was found deceased today on the ice in the harbor. Why it died may remain a mystery. Botulism E. is a major concern for loons on the Great Lakes right now.