Michigan’s Amazing Animals: Common Loon

by Patrick Bevier

Common loons are one of the most mysterious animals we have in Michigan. To unravel some of the mystery, here are some fascinating, fabulous, and funny facts about those beautiful, bewitching, and boisterous birds:

The Name Game: The scientific name of the common loon is Gavia immer. Gavia is a Latin term meaning ‘seabird’ and immer is from the Latin “immerses” which translates to ‘submerged’. Another moniker for these birds is Great Northern Diver, which acknowledges their amazing underwater skills. There are five species of Gavia worldwide, all living above the equator, with the common loon being by far the most frequent inhabitant of the Mitten State. A close relative, the red-throated loon, makes an occasional appearance in our area and can be identified by its burnt orange hued triangular throat patch, and small, narrow head.

Great Divers Indeed: When pursuing fish, a common loon can dart down to 200 foot-depths! They torpedo through the water with powerful thrusts of webbed feet and have solid bones which make them less buoyant than hollow-boned ducks. This skeleton contributes to common loons being the heaviest of the Gavia species as they may tip the scales at over 13 pounds. Further, loons can spend an amazing eight minutes underwater, and rarely come to the surface without an aquatic animal in their beak.

Photo by Deb Traxinger.

Not So Ducky: Common loons resemble ducks in shape and behavior except for a very pointed bill that helps them to spear their prey and feet located further back on the body. They sport mostly black plumage with a grid-like pattern of white spots across the wings, a thick black necklace, smooth head, small ruby colored eyes, and a white underbelly. There is no sexual dimorphism as male and female loons look similar to one another except males are sometimes slightly larger. The common loon’s feathers change dramatically between the breeding and non-breeding seasons. As a matter of fact, you probably wouldn’t recognize the understated non-breeding version with its drab brown body and white face and neck.

Still Not Too Common: Although population numbers appear to be rising slightly, common loons still carry the conservation status of threatened in the Great Lakes State. Threatened species are defined as those that may become endangered if conservation efforts are not increased. Indeed, in Michigan it is estimated that we have only 500-700 nesting pairs of loons. Please do not disturb them by getting too close, especially when they are nesting.

Loon Rangers: To monitor populations, Michigan has an ongoing Natural Features Study on these birds and specially assigned citizens are known as Loon Rangers! Can I get a, “High-Ho-Silver, Away!” for them?

Loquacious Loons: Loons emit some of the most distinctive and recognizable calls of all North American wildlife, and feature a variety of vocalizations. In fact, they produce four distinct calls (wail, yodel, hoot, and tremolo). The iconic wail is associated most with loons, and is a prolonged, haunting bellow that is used to signal their whereabouts to faraway mates. The yodel is an undulating shriek uttered by males only and means, “stay out of my territory!”. The hoot is used to occasionally signal nearby family members. Finally, the tremolo, is a cackling sound uttered when they feel threatened.

Summer Love: Loons generally mate for life but will take another partner if one dies. In Michigan loons usually arrive in April and begin preparing their nest in May. Nests are constructed of contoured marsh vegetation in sheltered areas and the clutch size is one or two large brown eggs with black splotches. Males and females take turns incubating the eggs which hatch in 26-29 days. The adorable, fully-feathered, brownish gray puffballs begin swimming within hours of hatching.

Thanks for the Ride, Mom! One of the most unusual behaviors of common loons is that the chicks ride on their parents’ backs. Two reasons for this piggy-back behavior are that it keeps the chicks warm and decreases predation from underwater hunters like snapping turtles and northern pike, and terrestrial predators like mink and fox. During the first week after hatching a chick may spend up to 50% of its time getting chauffeured with a sharp decline of back-riding thereafter. However, we have observed chicks over half the size of the parent sneaking a lift if they can get away with it!

Photo by Joni Roberts.

Bye, Bye Baby: It’s quite ironic, however, that such nurturing parents often leave their chicks “in the dust” near the end of their first summer of existence. During September the loon parents fly off to separate parts of the country-usually the warmer areas of the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico-with nary a thought for what might happen to the now three-month old chicks. The good news is that the youngsters, who have grown like weeds and are now almost the size of the parents, instinctively know to fly for warmer climes as well.

Long-in-the-Tooth Loons: As bird species go loons live a relatively long life. Indeed, Michigan boasts the oldest known loon pair in the world! The couple, named “ABJ” and “Fe,” have nested in the U.P.’s Seney National Wildlife Refuge since 1997. Having been banded much earlier, the male, “ABJ,” is 34-years-old while “Fe,” the female, reaches a remarkable 35-years-old this summer! Close eyes are kept on this couple as each year Michigan conservationists celebrate their return. It’s estimated that this dynamic duo has produced up to 40 “Yooper” loon chicks over their lifetime!

Piscatorial Palette: Loons have a somewhat specialized diet including gobbling up crayfish and aquatic insects but definitely consume more fish than anything else. While teaching them how to hunt, parents feed the chicks for many weeks of their young lives.

Like a Drunken Sailor: Because their legs are further back than any other type of water bird, loons have a distinct disadvantage on land. They are incapable of walking upright and instead stagger and crawl on their bellies until they can reach water again. That explains why loons nest on vegetation very close to the water’s edge in case they have to make a quick getaway in the presence of predators. Therefore, Gavia species spend their entire lives paddling, fishing, and loving, in the water. Their weight, however, makes it difficult for them to take flight and the birds often have to frantically run on the water’s surface for up to 600 yards to accomplish that feat. Accordingly, you won’t find loons nesting in small bodies of water.

Flying Phenom’s: Once airborne, loons can fly up to 75 miles per hour and can amass hundreds of miles of flying distance without rest!

Ever-Changing Eyes: Interestingly, the commonloons’ eye color changes dramatically from a dull gray during winter to a piercing crimson in spring and summer. Ornithologists hypothesize that this may be for attracting mates or for better underwater vision in fresh water.

Looney Tunes: Although the popular cartoon borrowed their name for the series, a loon character never appeared. Instead, a rabbit, duck, pig, cat, parakeet, and even a bumbling hunter graced the screen with names like Bugs, Daffy, Porky, Sylvester, Tweety, and Elmer. The goal was to, of course, have the viewer, “laughing like a loon!”

Legendary Loon Literature: A delightful children’s book was written and illustrated by Michigan artists Kathy-jo Wargin and Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen, respectively. It’s titled, “The Legend of the Loon” with a theme of a grandmother’s love for her grandchildren. It was published by popular Michigan-based book creators Sleeping Bear Press (sleepingbearpress.com).

An Avian Accident: A funny story comes our way from our Canadian cousins up north. Seems that their beloved dollar coin that was first minted in 1986, and sports a loon picture on the tails-side, was never meant to be. The initial intent for these coins, affectionately known as “loonies,” was to have two voyagers in a canoe opposite Queen Elizabeth’s’ face. But the die for that design went missing at the last minute and the mint decided to slap on a picture of a loon instead. Today, many people – particularly hockey players – consider loonies to be good luck.

Those are some common loon characteristics about these not so common creatures. With good fortune you’ll encounter one or more this summer on the wonderful waters of Michigan!

Species Spotlight: Fingernail Clam

by Emma Kull, MNA Communications Intern

Vernal pools are home to several hundreds of different species, including some fan favorites like the spotted salamander and the wood frog. Not all of these pool dwelling creatures are quite as well known–or as easy to identify–as the amphibian ones. One in particular, known as the fingernail clam, is so small that it is easy to miss at first glance. However, if you look a little closer at the pool floor, you’ll find thousands of them!

Photo by Leo Kenney

The fingernail clam is a lesser known, yet tremendously fascinating, inhabitant of the vernal pool wetland. There are many different species of fingernail clams, but the differences are so minute that it takes a serious clam expert to tell them apart. They are aptly named for their similarity in size to a pinky fingernail, with the largest of the species measuring at no more than a half an inch. Fingernail clams are bivalves, meaning their body is protected by two shells hinged together. They thrive in vernal pools, which can have calcium rich bedrock that provides optimal conditions for building strong shells. They have one foot which they use to navigate their surroundings as they feed on the pool’s algae and debris. 

Interestingly enough, fingernail clams can also utilize their singular but mighty foot to survive the vernal pool’s dry season by burrowing up to 8 inches into the moist soil. Other times, these clams will avoid the drying all together by hitching a ride on the toes of a salamander who carries the clam to safety by traveling to a new pool. Some fingernail clams might even clamp down on the feathers of a nearby bird, another suitable shuttle to a different pool. 

Fingernail clams only live for about one to two years, during which they reproduce several times. The self-fertilizing clams store their eggs in a specialized compartment in their gills until each tiny offspring is fully formed and released. The fingernail clam offspring are so large–up to one-third of the adult clam size–that there is simply not enough room for all of them. This leads to a competition for nutrients that is generally won by the older and larger young clams. The winners complete their development and are released into the world to begin their own delightful journey as a fingernail clam.

Bioluminescent Wonders in Michigan

by Emma Kull, MNA Communications Intern

Fireflies are a well-known member of the beetle family that live all across the United States. Including the estimated 170 species in North America, there are over 2,000 species of fireflies worldwide on every continent except Antarctica. Their wondrous bioluminescence is a special sight to behold, admired by children and adults alike. Michiganders may recall summertime memories of running around their backyard with joy searching for these creatures, waiting for the next tiny glow to illuminate the night. As it turns out, that unique glow is not just a feature of the adult firefly: the firefly eggs and larvae can glow too!

Firefly adult beetle at MNA’s Clifford R. and Calla C. Burr Memorial Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Angie Adamec.

Fireflies begin their lives as small eggs, sometimes clustered together with up to 100 other eggs. These firefly eggs can be found in moist soil or vegetation during the summer where they develop for about a month. For some species of firefly, these eggs will emit a dim glow.

As the summer turns to fall, the firefly eggs transition to their next stage of life and become larvae. They live as larvae throughout the fall, feeding on insects, worms, and snails. As the winter approaches in Michigan, they survive the cold temperatures by burrowing into the ground where they stay dormant for several months. The larvae then emerge from the ground in spring. Firefly larvae, much like they did as eggs, can produce light. However, unlike firefly eggs and adults, which may or may not emit light, all species of firefly larvae glow. Hence, they are often referred to as ‘glowworms’ in this stage of their lives. The naturally occurring chemicals in firefly larvae give them a bitter taste, making them undesirable as prey. Thus, some scientists believe glowworms are bioluminescent to warn potential predators of their bad taste. The beauty of the glowworm is only magnified by the rarity of actually encountering one, as they are more difficult to stumble upon compared to the adult fireflies that dance through the night sky.

Firefly larvae emit a bioluminescent light to warn potential predators of their unsavory taste. Photo by Alexandra Karelian via Adobe Stock, @karelian – stock.adobe.com

The glowworms pupate later in the spring and emerge as adult fireflies, on average, a few weeks after pupation. Once fireflies have reached their adult stage, they only live for a few weeks to a month. Therefore, a firefly’s main goal is to reproduce within that short lifespan. As adults, some fireflies produce light and others do not. Those that do typically only illuminate for mating proposes, yet they have also been observed to do so for other reasons, like defending territory. The male firefly will fly around, flashing a specific light pattern to attract a mate. The female will then flash her own signal, indicating her interest in that male. Adult fireflies that do not produce light instead use pheromones to find mates and reproduce.

As many have never had the chance to see a firefly in a pre-adult stage, it may be surprising to discover that fireflies begin glowing so early. Those who have witnessed one are certainly lucky!

Interacting Safely with Michigan Wildlife

by Jayli Husband, MNA Communications Intern

Michigan is filled with many interesting landscapes such as lakes, forests, marshes, prairies, as well as a popular destination for sand dunes and beaches. With this diversity of natural areas to explore, there are many different species that can be spotted throughout Michigan. With spring in full bloom throughout the state, it is important to be conscious of the native wildlife that may soon be emerging within our forests and neighborhoods and how to properly interact with them. Each spring, there are a number of wildlife encounters throughout Michigan that should be taken with caution.

As temperatures rise, reptiles such as snakes will become more prevalent because they hibernate during the cooler months. After a snake has been clearly seen, it is important to keep a safe distance so that the snake does not feel threatened, this way, they will not react. Snakes will most often avoid humans, in fact, 17 of 18 Michigan snake species are harmless to people. However, if you happen to encounter the Eastern massasauga rattlesnake (Michigan’s only venomous snake), it is best to back away, and if it is staying in a community setting such as a park or backyard have it removed by a professional.

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake photo by Zach Pacana.

Unfortunately, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake is now a threatened species because of the loss of habitat, thus, it is important to report any sightings to help conservation and DNR tracking efforts in Michigan. Snakes are very important in their ecosystem; they maintain balance in by eating pests such as mice and rats, and are also important prey for hawks, and other larger carnivores.

In addition to reptiles and amphibians popping back up, coyotes are also a common sight in the spring throughout Michigan. Coyotes can be spotted throughout the year, but it is important to know how to handle monitoring them due to increased activity during mating season. Like many animals, coyotes tend to avoid humans, but it is important to keep watch on small pets and make sure that they are supervised when outdoors if a coyote is spotted nearby. Additionally, coyotes have a great sense of smell, so it is helpful to keep food or smelly garbage contained when it is placed outdoors. To prevent a coyote from moving closer, they can often be deterred by scaring them through loud noises and aggressive hand waving. Coyotes are important for ecosystems as well because they are a keystone species. As a keystone species, coyotes help control the populations of prey species such as rabbits, rodents, deer, snakes, and many more animals which regulates the ecosystem.

Similarly, if a black bear is nearby, it is best to move and give the bear space or scare it off by making loud noises and looking as big as possible. Additionally, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MIDNR), people should follow the S.M.A.R.T. guidelines with black bears:

  • Stand your ground
  • Make loud noises
    • Always provide a clear escape route for the bear
    • Rarely do bears attack, but fight back if they do
    • Treat bears with respect and observe from a distance.
A black bear with several cubs. Photo by Thomas Wiensch

Black bears are the only bear species that reside in Michigan and only roam in hardwood and conifer forests. Overall, they tend to avoid humans like most animals, but it is best to take caution. Like snakes, bears also appear in the warmer months due to hibernation during cooler months. Bears also play an important role in the environment; like coyotes, bears help maintain the population of their prey including deer, elk, insects, and plants. Uniquely, because bears eat lots of berries, their scat turns into the perfect fertilizer for plants and bushes!

Any direct encounter with these animals are pretty rare. Keep in mind that biting insects such as ticks and mosquitoes pose a more serious threat when out and about this summer. Take common sense precautions with long pants, long sleeves, and repellant while enjoying any lucky wildlife sightings.

It is so important to maintain healthy relationships our wildlife because each animal helps maintain balance in the ecosystem. You can report wildlife sightings to the MIDNR using the Eyes in the Field website, where you can select a category and report your observation. And you can help protect natural areas for all of Michigan’s many species by supporting the Michigan Nature Association.