Story and Photographs by Joan Herrmann

Whereiwander… today is a meander back into some treasured memories of the first encounter I had with a Common Loon (Gavia immer). Many, many years ago, I had a wonderful opportunity to attend a retreat at Great Camp Sagamore in the area near Raquette Lake in The Adirondacks. The coordinators were Dr. Barbara Glaser and author Anne LaBastille. The weekend was titled “Women In The Woods”. For me it was an opportunity to reconnect with my childhood and also to spend time with women who loved hiking and canoeing. It was also a rediscovering of a misplaced love of the woods and waters of the Adirondack Mountains.

The first morning of this adventure, I was up and outside at the break of dawn. The smell of Balsams and the feel of the morning mist were both splendid. A thick fog covered Sagamore Lake, and it was just beginning to lift. The silence was suddenly broken by the tremolo/yodel of a Loon, which is an unforgettable sound. My camera was accompanying me as I looked to find that bird, and it appeared like an apparition right in front of me. It raised its body upright out of the water and flapped its wings. That beautiful black and white bird stole my heart, and I have been a “loony” since that first encounter. I wouldn’t be surprised if you have had a similar experience and love their mystical vocalization too.

Throughout the years, first as a canoeist and now for the past thirty years as a kayaker, I have had numerous encounters with loons. Those of us who live in the Adirondacks are so fortunate to have sightings and photographic opportunities so close to home. The Adirondack Lakes are perfect breeding grounds for these beautiful birds. They can be seen as early as April returning to their past nesting areas. Just as soon as the ice leaves, the loons return. They may spend time on the open waters of Hinckley Reservoir before flying further north. On numerous occasions, I have had the joy of hearing that tremolo in the early morning or late evening.

Loons are monogamous (having one mate). They generally don’t begin mating until they are about five years old. Their life expectancy may be as long as twenty-five or more years. Recently, a banded female loon was found in Michigan wearing a band that dated her to be twenty-nine years and ten months old. It is the male loon who chose the nesting site, and it is quite possible that he chose that same site last year. The site is generally at the edge of the water 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 this bird. Islands within the lake are quite often choice sites and may eliminate problems of intrusion by humans and predators. The nest site is often near deep water, so 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 materials 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. This allows the chicks to climb easily onto their backs. Predators loom above and below the water. Eagles, osprey, mink, snapping turtles, pike, muskies, and largemouth bass are always ready to consume unprotected chicks.

Loons are voracious consumers of fish; it has been estimated that the adults and two chicks are able to eat about one thousand pounds of fish. This is all within the three months that they reside in their Adirondack breeding grounds. In addition to fish, they will also consume vast 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, the loon can adjust its buoyancy. 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 can swallow prey underwater. They have no teeth, but the roof of their mouth and tongue have backward pointing projections, which keep slippery fish from escaping. Loons are agile in the water and also in the air. They have been recorded flying at speeds of seventy miles per hour.

Their striking black and white breeding plumage includes a black head and beak, a vertically striped neck collar, white chest, belly, and under wings, and spotted/checkered back and wings. They will molt into a rather drab grayish-brown camouflage for fall and winter. Even their stunning red eye of spring and summer darkens to gray in the fall. These colors will suit them as they winter in along the coastal waters, bays, and estuaries. The adults migrate weeks before the immature. The immature will raft up and eventually migrate before the lakes ice up. All loons need a “long runway” to take flight. A minimum of ninety feet and up to as much as fifteen hundred feet may be necessary. They can only safely land and take off from water. Occasionally, a loon may be fooled into thinking that a wet roadway or parking lot is a river or lake. If that should occur, they become stranded and will need a wildlife rehabilitator and another qualified person to assist them.

Joan Herrmann has taught and done programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers for about 38 years as a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995, she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and 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). In 2013 and 2014, she did a week-long summer program at BROEP with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC).

Using her love of 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 cataloging all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.

Since October 2016, she has written a bi-monthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with the My Little Falls newspaper. You may reach her at