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Secret Lives of Loons
The aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has spawned one of the first in-depth studies of these iconic birds in their winter habitat
By Laura Tangley
IT LOOKED A LOT LIKE A COMMON LOON—but not exactly. The bird’s profile was typical, right down to the distinctive daggerlike bill. Yet its plumage was wrong. Rather than a striking black-and-white tuxedo, this animal was wearing a drab gray suit. And just off the coast of Louisiana, the bird was bobbing on turbid waves in the Gulf of Mexico—a far cry from the still, crystal-clear lakes of the northern United States and Canada where loons have come to symbolize remote wilderness.
“Down!” called out biologist Hannah Uher-Koch as the bird—a loon in nonbreeding plumage, she explained—dove into the murky water. “Up!” she shouted 45 seconds later when it resurfaced. Standing nearby on a bracingly cold March day, an assistant recorded the precise duration of this and a dozen more dives during the following 15 minutes, when the loon popped to the surface crunching on a freshly caught blue crab.
Apparently routine, the biologists’ observations were significant because little is known about the behavior of common loons in the Gulf and other coastal habitats where the majority spend the winter. On inland freshwater breeding grounds, “the common loon may be the best-studied bird in North America,” says biologist Jim Paruk, senior loon scientist at the Maine-based Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI). Paruk and his BRI colleagues alone have captured and banded more than 4,800 loons in 22 states and seven provinces. Breeding loons (below, in British Columbia) “are highly visible and vocal,” he adds, “giving scientists as well as citizen scientists a chance to follow the birds 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
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