By Susie Burbidge
It’s wintertime in Eastman and our thoughts have turned to skiing, iceskating, sitting by the fire and enjoying hot chocolate. It seems a long time ago that we were paddling on the lake, watching our two loon chicks grow and flourish. You may be wondering where the loons are when the lake freezes. The adults usually leave the lakes by November (some stay longer, though, if there’s a chick still on the lake), but the male and female migrate independently of each other and do not meet up again until they return after ice-out in the spring. The young of the year often stay on the lakes right until the lakes freeze over—sometimes giving us a scare that they are not going to leave! Somehow they know to head pretty much due-east even though they have not made the trip to the ocean before. New Hampshire loons spend the winter on the New England coast, possibly as far south as the Long Island Sound. Interestingly, New Hampshire loons are about 40% larger than loons that breed in the Midwest and central Canada, most likely because of their short migration distance. If you find yourself needing some “loon therapy” in the middle of the winter, take a day trip over to Rye Harbor, and I can almost guarantee that you will see at least one! The Midwestern loons travel to the Gulf Coast and southeastern United States for the winter, so for those Eastman residents who also migrate in the winter, you may see some loons along the coast too! They will be in their gray winter plumage, though, which is quite different from the black-and-white breeding plumage that we all know and love.
While on the ocean, loons feast on crabs, and they have a special gland that helps them remove excess salt from the ocean water after they drink it. They go through a complete flight-feather molt while they are on the ocean, which leaves them flightless for a few weeks. Loons are hard to study on their ocean wintering grounds, but observations of a loon banded on Mooselookmeguntic Lake in Maine and spotted for three consecutive winters in Biddeford Pool, Maine, show that some loons do exhibit fidelity to their winter sites, too!
The chicks that hatched on Eastman Lake last summer will remain on the ocean for about three years before they return to freshwater. When they return, they will try to settle on a lake relatively close to Eastman, but it will depend on whether they can find an open territory. It often takes several years before a younger loon can acquire a territory of its own, and on average, loons in New Hampshire do not start breeding until they are 6 or 7 years old.
It was interesting that an immature loon (1 to 2 years old) spent most of last summer on Eastman Lake. Each summer we may see up to 10 of these young loons on our lakes, but we’re not exactly sure why they are here. My guess is that they get tired of the coastal scenery!