Loon News

When the loons arrived on the lake, they weren’t all seeing eye to eye. It was sometimes more like beak to beak. There just seemed to be a little more tussling than usual this Spring. Plus there was lot of that scooting-around thing they do.

We’ve had loon chicks hatch as early as mid-June. In fact, back several years ago they hatched on Father’s Day, which always seemed sort of a nice coincidence. After all, loon dads do their sitting time on the nest, just like loon moms. And when the chicks are born, both parents work hard to feed the young ones.

We were concerned when we realized that there were no nests on Belly Button Island–the big island in the north part of the lake. Not to worry. One pair set up their nest on the west side of the small island just across from the public launch. And apparently the other pair just stood guard over the five loon nesting buoys at the big island, sort of faking everybody out.

The small island, especially on the west side, is a calm spot on the lake. So, good choice loon. Oh, except we’ve also seen a big snapping turtle laying eggs on the island and worried she’d decide to go after the eggs on one of the rare occasions when the nest was bare. Then, with just those few feet of water between the island and the land, the risk of raccoons, skunks, mink, otters, and fox getting the eggs seems high. In fact, just about everything walking or flying will raid loon nests sometimes, including gulls, ravens, crows, and there’s even some reports of Bald Eagles chowing down. Very worrisome.

But this pair was vigilant.

And, we are pretty sure that it was sometime on July 3rd that the chicks hatched and headed out on the water. Well, first on a parent’s back.

That red-eyed parental stare cuts right to the chase: “These twins can’t dive yet. Do not run them over. If you run them over I know where you live and we’ll be at the end of your dock yodeling all night while your trying to watch Game of Thrones.”

We didn’t applaud their timing. The lake is so busy over Independence Day. But, babies are born when they’re born.

Here’s another first-day photo.

Happily, the twins made it through their first challenging days. Here they are two days later, on July 5th, already looking like their parents are good providers.

By July 8th, the parents were leaving the chicks bobbing around while they both dove for food.

We can’t protect the twins from the big snappers, or the bald eagles or the giant pike or the rest of the hungry things.  But we can be sure they don’t get whacked by a tuber or run over by a PWC. So, let’s all look out for the little fuzzballs! Hopefully, come October, we’ll find out they’ve gotten a good start on Long Lake and are headed south for the winter.

Spring on Long Lake

This was the evening of April 29th. As the sun sunk low, the sky above the tree line was a faint yellowy orange. Then suddenly this color burst out. And the lake echoed the color, spreading it right to the edge of our paddle boat.

The final arbiter of all color descriptions is Crayola. First Yellow-Orange, then Orange, and then a deep beautiful Sunset Orange. The transition hardly took two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Amazing.

And the loons are back. Definitely a pair around what we call Belly Button Island in the north part of the lake. And another pair in the lower lake. There are singles stopping by too. This loon was swimming in the narrows last week.

From the sublime, to the sublime, to…well, the Canada Geese are back. Would someone like to board their dog on our lawn from early June to about mid-August? Golden Retrievers and Labs are especially invited to apply.

What’s up on Long Lake

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We aren’t going to have any loon chicks this year on the lake. But we have loons-in-residence and from time to time we’re the party lake this summer. Loons occasionally gather in social groups. We hear them flying in, sounding their loony-tunes flight calls. We see them doing their skittering chasing about.

The underside of a loon is always a surprise. Even when you know their beautiful plumage is topside only, that white underbelly still seems sort of unfinished. Like the black magic marker ran out of ink.

See how the loon has its feet crossed in flight, as if at the ankle?  I’m thinking that must help it to deal efficiently with wind resistance. If loons did all that foot waggling and scratching in the air that they do in the water, they’d probably fall like a rock.

Here’s a beauty of a definitely different sort.

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The Turkey Vulture. We see them circling in kettles that can number a few dozen individuals. But they don’t always travel in packs. This guy was a loner. Its fanned-out wing tips are a dead giveaway. Also, if you see a bird swooping down to something dead and smelly that’s pretty much a giveaway too. Oh yes, there’s that red head, all nicely defeathered so the bird can pick at carcasses and not have to do much grooming. There’s no mistaking that red head.

This fellow, cruising high over Long Lake, is a Great Blue Heron.

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Great Blues fly with deep, strong beats of their very wide wings. But from ground level, it’s the long trailing legs that tell you best what’s up . When Great Blues fly, they pretty much fold their necks into sort of an “s” shape. So, look for long legs, long beak, but you won’t really see a long neck. And if you’re suddenly being reminded that all birds are descendants of dinosaurs, you’re probably looking at a Great Blue Heron. These guys may set you to wondering if the dinosaurs are still extinct.

Here’s one everyone knows, the Bald Eagle.

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If Bald Eagles are flying high, they are more likely to be gliding than riding a thermal up in a spiral as a vulture does. On Long Lake the eagles often fly low over the tree lines. Their wing tips fan out, but not so exaggeratedly as a vulture’s. And unless the bird is very high or very backlit, the white head and yellow beak is the giveaway.

We’re crawlin’ with critters

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We spotted this spotted sandpiper in Ghost Bay. He was teeter-tottering along, like these petite (7-8 inches) shorebirds do, picking at stuff with his bill. He startled when we paddled into the Bay. But once he settled back down he actually landed closer to us than when we first saw him. He has a distinctive black line from his bill across his eye and a nice clear white eye-ring. It’s spring, so this spotted sandpiper is, well, spotted. Just before the fall migration, which extends as far south as Bolivia and Brazil, Spotted Sandpipers molt and that nice spotted belly becomes spotless.

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This beaver was swimming in Ghost Bay recently. You might be able to spot him yourself. We’re hoping to get to know him, as an individual, because he has a very distinctive reddish coat. And he’s got almost a white patch on the lower half of his face. He didn’t issue any alarm call.

The beavers have been busy this year. Once the ice melted, we can see that each of the lodges on the lake experienced a building boom.

This next guy doesn’t quite rival the beaver in swimming ability, but he’s no slouch. It’s an adult Northern Water Snake. First is a view of his not so beautiful head. We can tell he was an adult because his banding was not as distinctive as a young snake would be. And he was pretty big.

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These snakes can live from 10-15 years and grow to about 3 and one-half feet long.

Here’s a view of him where you can see his length.

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This guy wasn’t cooperating with Steve’s photography efforts. Doesn’t it remind you of some of those Loch Ness monster photos you’ve seen?

Northern Water Snakes a/k/a Nerodia Sipedon aren’t venomous. They will bite if you mess with them. But you have to make a total pest of yourself before that will happen. And if they bite you you’ll need antiseptic and a band-aid, not an undertaker. Don’t handle them, though. What they mostly do is release a foul-smelling substance that apparently you will not want to smell twice in your life. Here’s a view of a younger snake that we saw on the lake a few years ago.

We don’t see many water snakes. They do no harm to humans. They do no harm to game fish populations. They are good snakes who’ve been preyed upon mercilessly by humans who don’t like snakes (by the way, they scare me too) and who think they may be deadly Water Moccasins (Cottonmouths). We don’t have any Water Moccasins in Michigan. Not even one. We do have Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnakes, but even our rattlesnakes haven’t killed anyone in a zillion years. “Welcome to Pure Michigan: our snakes won’t kill you.” So let’s count ourselves lucky to have a few Northern Water Snakes on Long Lake and just give them some elbow room.

And speaking of giving critters elbow room, the loon pair in the lower lake is nesting. If we and our dogs can all stay clear and let them nest in peace, by mid-July we might be meeting a chick or two.

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Long Lake critters

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Today’s a day for putting a not-so-beautiful critter in a prominent place. This big Snapping Turtle hauled herself, probably herself (we didn’t ask), out of the water onto the island at the south end of the lake. It’s near the time of the year when Michigan mother snappers will lay their eggs in sandy soil. That happens in late May to early June. We’re sort of there. It’s not easy to find sandy soil on Long Lake islands. So she probably has to start looking kind of early.

Snapping turtles aren’t attentive parents. Mother will lay the eggs. She buries them so hopefully they won’t all be eaten by the egg eaters and then leaves them. If they escape being somebody’s breakfast, a few months after the eggs were laid the hatchlings will, well, hatch. They head for the water. Eggs that were kept warmer turn out to be females. Eggs that were kept colder turn out to be males. Let’s not try to glean any greater truths from that.

A snapping turtle has a small shell relative to its overall size. It can’t pull all its vulnerable parts under its shell, so that may account for its aggressive temperament. On land, don’t mess with them. It’s not really a good idea to help snappers cross roads by picking them up. That bony beak has no teeth but steer clear or you may not be so accurate counting on your fingers anymore. But in the water these big guys are meek. They like to hide in the mud with just their heads sticking out. They aren’t likely to bite off your toes. Anyway, that’s what U of M BioKids tells kids. U of M wouldn’t fib. While a snapper is buried in mud, they will open their mouth, hoping to attract prey with a dangly part that looks a bit wormlike. If you don’t look too closely, I suppose.

Snappers are omnivores. We have two families of Canada Geese that are already hatched and pooping all over our lawns. There are five little goslings in one family and four in the other. They are small enough that a big snapper could…well…it would probably be very mean to hope for that.

And here is one of Long Lake’s loons doing that half-submerged thing that they do.

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It looks like at least one pair and possibly one solo loon have joined us this year. It’s still hard to tell. Soon the pair should set to nesting. Hopefully they won’t nest where the careless will assemble, especially the careless who also travel about with dogs. If we and they are lucky, around the 4th of July we’ll see one or two chicks riding on their parent’s back.

We took pity on the Baltimore Oriole trying to feed at our hummingbird feeder. That didn’t work out well. Steve put out an orange. It can’t seem to get enough of it and keeps coming back for more.

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And, speaking of the hummers, they are back and they are hungry.