Land of the loons: Majestic bird is visual, audio symbol of North Country

  • Article by: BILL MARCHEL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 5, 2013 - 11:38 AM

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Perhaps no other living creature represents Minnesota like the common loon. From its laughing call on a still summer evening to its frolicking courtship antics, the loon evokes our emotions both aurally and visually.

Sometimes the big fish-eating birds seem as curious about us as we are of them. Anyone who has spent time in a boat or lounging on a dock knows what I mean. Loons seem to appear from nowhere, surfacing close by, only to dive and resurface again as if to make sure we are watching.

Of course, we are.

And the loons observe us, too. They spy on us with those striking red eyes that contrast sharply against the velvety dark head which — when the light is just so — flashes iridescent green and purple. Upon surfacing, a drop of water falls from the long black dagger-like bill, which to us is attractive, but a sight likely to send panic through a school of minnows or small fish. Loons are fish-catching machines that virtually fly through the water using powerful webbed feet and wings.

Shifting our eyes to just below the bird’s bill, we start to wonder about those gaudy white strips on the neck.

It’s as if the loon’s original artist had extra white paint and, after adding the checkerboard pattern to the bird’s back, promptly swabbed his or her whitened brush against the neck, not in just one location but two.

If we’re lucky, we may see a loon pair with their downy black young — usually two but sometimes only one — riding on a parent’s back.

The fluffy chicks are so buoyant when they attempt to dive, they quickly pop back to the surface. However, the parents dive with ease and grace, at times, hardly rippling the water’s surface.

Is it any wonder why we chose the loon as our state bird?

 

Bill Marchel, an outdoor writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.

 

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  • Downy young loon chicks often ride atop their parents’ back. Until the chicks are able to catch prey themselves, the parents feed them small fish and minnows.

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