Story and Photographs By Joan Herrmann
Whereiwander… when mid-August draws near, I began to feel a little melancholy because the summer is disappearing quickly, and those sights and sounds will be gone in the blink of an eye. I think back to this past spring when I was out on the balcony refilling the bird feeders and heard the honking of the Canada Geese and saw the familiar “V” formation of the large returning flock. And now, from late July through mid-August, they have already gone through their annual molt. This annual molt is quite different than the molting or replacing of old worn feathers that most birds experience. Other birds generally have a “sequential molt,” which means that their flight feathers are lost one at a time simultaneously from each wing. A sequential molt allows the other birds to be able to still fly during this process. Whereas the Canada Geese will lose all of their primary wing feathers at the same time. Since they are unable to fly during the re-growth, they may be more vulnerable to predation. However, they spend time together in large grounded flocks and are quite adept at protecting themselves and each other. During this flightless time, they stand watch and can alert each other of possible danger. Even though they cannot fly, they still have strong wings, and they use their wings and feet to fight off predators. Their bills and tongues have serrated edges, which are used for plucking grasses and cutting stems and may also be used as a weapon.
Canada Geese, both male and female, are monomorphic, meaning that the feathers and colors are the same. They both have black heads and necks, and both have a white “chin strap.” Their legs and webbed feet are black, and their body feathers are a brownish beige color. Males are a bit larger than females and weigh five and a half to fourteen pounds, while the females weigh five and a quarter to twelve pounds. Their vocalizing can distinguish the male from the female. When they greet each other, the male makes a low two-syllable sound, “a honk,” and the female a higher-pitched one-syllable sound, “hink.” Canada Geese mate for life, but if one should die, the other will find another mate, usually within a year. Their survival in the wild is between ten and twenty-four years. Adult geese don’t have a lot of predators; however, coyotes, great-horned owls, and hunting are the main sources of their demise. The goslings and eggs are preyed upon by coyotes, raccoons, red foxes, gulls, ravens, crows, snapping turtles, and black bears.
Another spring sound that is greatly appreciated will also be gone as late August descends upon us. It is the enchanting call of the Common Loon. The yodel and the tremolo are both magical and mystical sounds that are endearing to so many of us. Over the years, first as a canoeist and now as a kayaker, I have had numerous encounters with loons. To be able to sit still and observe and photograph them from my kayak has been an absolute delight, as I am sure many of you have also experienced. Our Adirondack lakes are perfect breeding grounds for these beautiful birds. The loons may be seen as early as April, returning to past nesting areas. As soon as the ice leaves, the loons return.
Loons don’t begin mating until they are about five years old. They are monogamous once they find their mate. Their life expectancy may be twenty-five years or more. I learned that a banded female loon was found in Michigan wearing a band that dated her to be twenty-nine years and ten months old. The male loon chooses the nesting site and it is usually the site where they successfully bred the previous year. The site is most often at the water’s edge due to the physiology of the loon’s body. Their feet are situated further back on their bodies which makes walking very awkward and difficult for them. Islands within a lake are choice nesting sites and may eliminate problems of intrusion by humans and predators. The nest is quite often near deep water so that the returning adult can approach the nest unseen by swimming underwater. The nest is made or refreshed using plant materials found near the site. Grasses, sedges, and other plant material are mounded on the site and then “molded” to conform to their bodies.
The female will lay one to two eggs, which are olive-brown/green and sparsely blotched with black or brown spots. The eggs are about three and a half inches in length. Both male and female loons will incubate the eggs, but most likely, the female will spend more time on the nest. After hatching and when their sooty colored down has dried, in about twenty-four hours, these buoyant chicks enter the water. Even though they can swim, the adults will feed and protect them on their backs. The adults have the ability to deflate their air sacs within their bodies and sink their bodies into the water surface, allowing the chicks to climb onto their back. Predators loom above and below the water. Eagles, osprey, mink, snapping turtles, pike, muskies, and large-mouth bass are always ready to consume unprotected chicks.
Loons are voracious consumers of fish, and it is estimated that the adults and two chicks are able to eat about one thousand pounds of fish within the three months that they reside in their Adirondack breeding grounds. In addition to fish, they will also consume great quantities of snails, crayfish, leeches, and aquatic larvae. They have seven to twelve air sacs within their bodies which are used for more than just breathing. By changing the amount of air within the sacs, a loon can adjust its buoyancies. Loon’s bodies are perfect for swimming and diving. They can disappear with barely a ripple on the water’s surface and dive to depths of two hundred feet. They are able to slow down their heart and conserve oxygen. Loons catch and swallow prey underwater. They have no teeth, but the roof of their mouth and tongue has backward pointing projections, which keep slippery fish from escaping. Loons are agile in the water and in the air. They have also been recorded flying at speeds of seventy miles per hour.
As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, for about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995, she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and also became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York, she has been educating children and adults for nineteen years.
In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP), and in 2013 and 2014 did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of both nature and photography, she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.
Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in the cataloging of all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.
Since October 2016, she has been writing a bi-monthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October of 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with the My Little Falls Newspaper. You may reach her at email@example.com.