In early autumn, it’s not unusual to encounter concentrations of several hundred common loons on larger northern lakes such as Lake Mille Lacs.
Flocks of our state birds are preparing for travels to winter waters along the Atlantic coast from North Carolina south to Florida, or to the Gulf of Mexico. To date, quite a few loons have left the state. Last Nov. 3, birders counted a flock of 41 common loons on Cannon Lake in Faribault. Other migrants such as common and hooded mergansers and canvasbacks also were there. Observations over the years tell us that a few of the state’s loons have attempted to winter here.
Minnesota has more common loons than any other state except Alaska. They are predominantly found on lakes throughout the central and northeastern part of the state. I do feel fortunate to hear and see them on Lake Waconia, just west of the Twin Cities, each summer. And about 12,000 will return to Minnesota next spring when the lakes clear.
“Loon” means lummox or awkward and refers to the bird’s onshore movements and its inability to fly from ground. While loons sometimes need up to a quarter-mile of lake surface runway, they can often break water contact after a run of about 80 yards. On small lakes they must fly in a curve around part of it before ascending high enough to clear trees.
Loons are long-lived. One banded in Michigan was 29 years, 10 months when recaptured in April 2016. A Minnesota loon was recaptured after 18 years. So those of us who treasure their echoing calls, a symbol of our Minnesota wilderness, can be assured that at least some of the same individuals are at our special lake spots each summer.
Jim Gilbert taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.