Why is the loon a water bird, you ask? In her book The Common Loon, Spirit of Northern Lakes, Judith McIntyre summarizes a legend that explains why. Passed down by generations of Micmac Indians, the legend tells about an earlier time when loons lived on land.
“The loon was so tame, yet clumsy, that it annoyed all the villagers as it ran in and out of the wigwams, knocking over belongings and spilling food and drink. The Micmacs could finally stand it no longer, caught Loon, and threatened to throw him into the water. Thinking quickly, Loon begged them not to throw him into the water, but to throw him in the fire instead. The Indians, thinking they could finally get even, were sure to throw him into the water. When he was safely away from the village he called back to them with his wonderful laugh, saying, ‘Just what I wanted, just what I wanted.’ And that is how the Loon Became a Water Bird.”
The loon is often referred to as the “spirit of northern waters,” and is recognized as a symbol of unspoiled wilderness. Living on Schroon Lake we’ve seen a resurgence of the loon and are regularly treated to its hauntingly eerie, yodel-like call that can be heard echoing across the lake. Loons are powerful swimmers, but their legs are so far back on their bodies they can’t walk on land. Variability in lake level of a foot or more can inundate nests or prevent the loon from getting back to its nest.
As the autumn foliage begins to color the forests, and ice begins building at the edges of smaller lakes and ponds, loons begin their process of relocation. Abandoning their summer homes for larger lakes that take longer to freeze, they can extend their fresh-water Adirondack stay a bit longer. First the adults begin flocking together, followed by their independent chicks, whose wings are now strong enough to fly. As the loose-knit flock begins to gather, they await a favorable wind to begin their migration from the north country.
Loons will slowly climb to altitudes of 6,000 feet to take advantage of brisk upper air winds, boosting their speed from 25 mph in calm air to over 60 mph with the help of northwesterly breezes. Traveling solo, they gather with other loons at staging areas to rest and feed along the way. In a study done by Biodiversity Research Institute of Adirondack loons equipped with satellite transmitters, it was found that adult Adirondack Common Loons migrate directly to and from the Massachusetts and Long Island coasts in less than a day. Migratory pathways in loons are likely learned by chance, based on a juvenile Adirondack loon that moved from New York lake to lake as they iced in, before finally arriving at the Atlantic coast two months later than the adults.
Just like the human snowbirds, these iconic birds of the Adirondacks will begin showing up again next season mid to late April.