A unique feathered flyer stops in northeastern Utah every spring. You can learn more about the bird on April 6, as the Division of Wildlife Resources hosts its first ever Loon Watch.
The free wildlife viewing event runs from 9 a.m. to noon at Steinaker State Park. The park, which includes Steinaker Reservoir, is just off US Highway 191, about five miles north of Vernal.
“Loons are an almost mythical bird of the north, well known for their wailing yodel-like calls,” says Ron Stewart, the DWR conservation outreach manager who created the event.
Stewart says he’s watched common loons on waters in northeastern Utah for more than 25 years. He really took an interest in the birds about three years ago, when DWR personnel started talking about centering a watchable wildlife event around the bird.
“A migratory population of loons passes through the Uinta Basin every spring,” Stewart says. “They’ve been fairly consistent, arriving just after ice-off.”
Stewart says more than 200 loons have been seen on different reservoirs in the basin on a single day. Steinaker Reservoir seems to be a hotspot, with more than 60 loons spotted on it on a single day.
“Hopefully,” Stewart says, “they’ll be there this year for our Loon Watch.”
Stewart says the Loon Watch will happen at one of the US 191 pull-outs on the east side of the reservoir. “We’ll have binoculars and spotting scopes available to help you see, learn about and enjoy these unique birds,” he says. “Information about loons will also be available.”
Stewart says loons eat mostly fish, but he and DWR biologists have also seen them eat crayfish. “With a bit of cooperation from the birds,” he says, “we should be able to see them feeding on crayfish and possibly minnows in the shallows. And, if we’re lucky, we might get to hear them call.”
Named for their awkwardness when walking, loons are at home on or under the water. They’re superb swimmers that can catch fish. They use land only during their nesting season.
There are five loon species. The second largest, the common loon, migrates through Utah on its way north in the spring and on its way back to coastal destinations in the fall.
For more information about the Loon Watch, call the DWR’s Northeastern Region office at 435-781-9453.
From Utah, the loons continue north
Each spring, common loons travel to the remote, freshwater lakes and ponds in the far northern states and Canada. There, loons breed and spend the summer raising their young.
When they arrive in the north, the loons stake out and defend breeding and foraging territories, which can be 60 to 200 acres. The male chooses a nest site and begins construction using reeds, grasses and other wetland plants. When the female joins him, courting begins. Loon pairs will mate and nest together for years, but if one fails to show the other will find a new partner.
The female lays up to three eggs, which are cared for by both parents. The eggs incubate for 28 days before hatching. Soon after the chicks are born, the pair leads them from the nest into the water. The chicks’ fuzzy down floats them high in the water, and they soon learn to take shelter and nap on their parents’ backs. In rough, nasty weather, the parents may temporarily lead chicks on shore where they can cuddle beneath the parents for warmth.
The parents spend two to three months teaching the chicks to survive. Once the chicks learn to fly, the adults generally leave, relocating to a larger lake. For a month or so, the chicks fend for themselves before leaving for larger waters. Chicks often join the adults for the migration south. Some travel south by themselves or with other chicks.
In the fall, western common loons migrate to the Pacific Ocean and winter along the coasts of North America from Alaska to central Mexico. The eastern birds migrate to the Atlantic Coast from Canada to Florida, the Gulf Coast and Mexico where they winter until the spring migration north. The chicks will spend the next five to seven years along the coastline, until they mature. Some studies show returning young will find the nursery areas where they were born and often nest within a few miles of where they were raised.
Because of declining populations, many of the northern states where loons breed have put the species on watch lists. Declining populations are generally attributed to human-caused water pollution, mercury and lead poisoning, pesticides, oil spills, loss of habitat and disturbances from new developments and water uses such as boating.
Image courtesy Utah Division of Wildlife Resources