Couple risks thin ice to save a trapped loon
There is just something magical about loons. From ancient times the loon has been a part of northern legends. Its image is represented on totem poles and used as a clan crest. In Northwest Coast tribes a loon is the symbol of harmony, generosity, and peace. We have been what is referred to in the lower 48 as Loon Rangers, for over 30 years. Hourglass Lake, in the Matanuska Valley, is a great place for loon watching. Each year we look forward to seeing them return, raise their young, and bless us with their fascinating and haunting voices.
This past spring, a male common loon arrived on our lake shortly after breakup in early May, and the female arrived a few days later. Loons are thought to be monogamous and often return to the same lake year after year to have their young. Our lake is a perfect choice for these diving waterfowl. They eat the abundant small trout and pike available, and also such tasty morsels as aquatic insects, leeches, and tiny frogs. We believe our loons are returning loons. They are not afraid of us and often come near our dock to greet us with a good morning “hoot call.”
Hourglass Lake cabin and home owners are careful to control the activity of motorized boats and water sports during the time the loons are building their nest until the chicks hatch. Incubation time is commonly 24 to 31 days. This is critical to the survival of the eggs, as the wakes from jet skis and boats can cause the nest to get wet and the embryos to die.
Once we know where the loons have made their nest, we post floating “Loon Nesting” signs. Just like expectant parents, we wait for the day when we see a tiny chick riding on the back of the parent. Within a couple of days the chicks begin venturing into the water, swimming and learning to dive. All the while, the parents are constantly feeding them so the chicks are ready for fall migration.
For the next two months we enjoyed the yodels, wails, hoots and tremolo calls of “loon talk.” Sometimes this communication alerts us that the local eagle is flying near, looking for lunch. It is the full-time job for all of us who scan the lake daily, making sure the hatchlings are healthy and ready for flight school. Unfortunately, sometime this past August, one of the two chicks disappeared.
- Five species of loons can be found in Alaska: common, yellow-billed, red-throated, Pacific, and Arctic.
- All loons turn brown on top in the fall, but are still recognizable by their subtle differences per species.
- Loons can stay underwater for more than a minute and have been caught in fishing nets 240 feet deep.
At about 10 weeks the remaining chick began flight training. This year it seemed the parents started late with their instruction. A loon needs 100 to 600 feet of open space in order to run across the water and take off. We observed the parents instructing for all of September and yet the now grown chick was unable to lift off. Again and again we saw the chick struggle to fly. October approached and the lake began to freeze. One adult loon left to head south for the winter. The remaining parent stayed on for two additional weeks until finally it flew off, leaving the grown chick on its own.
One of our neighbors, Mary, reported observations of our floundering loon. It was losing open water and feeding grounds as the ice formed faster and faster each day. On November 6th, it was 11 degrees and there was no open water left on the lake. That was the day my husband, Ross Clement, and I decided to launch the Great Loon Rescue.
Ross tested the new ice and it appeared to be about 4 to 6 inches thick. We could see the loon about mid lake with the binoculars and decided to drive around the lake to get as close as we could and test the ice again. Our rescue supplies consisted of a six-foot sled, a large king salmon fishing net, a large dog kennel, a blanket, two life jackets, and a broom.
Our loon, now named Frosted Flake by a consensus of family members, was about 200 yards across the lake struggling to move on the ice and snow. Ross launched with our dog kennel on top of the sled. He carried the king salmon net. The ice appeared to be strong enough and had little overflow. I walked behind with my camera, rope, and phone … just in case the ice gave way.
The loon saw us coming and did not appear frightened. Ross walked right up to it and gently placed the net over it. Within a minute we had the loon out of the net and into the dog kennel. Frosted Flake was certainly exhausted as we wrapped it up in a blanket and headed back across the lake to the car.
On the ride home, our loon blessed us with a few soft hoots that seemed to say, “I’m okay now.” Later in the day we delivered our loon to the Bird Treatment and Learning Center. We learned over the next few days that Frosted Flake had a broken clavicle but was eating and swimming, all good signs for getting better.
Our loon stayed in the care of the Bird Treatment and Learning Center over 40 days. Unfortunately, this loon was not meant to enjoy a year of sea dining on ocean fish, gourmet crustaceans, snails, leeches, and insects. Its clavicle did not heal. It will not return to help us welcome spring at Hourglass Lake.
Our loon was a survivor with a story. Frosted Flake was not just a common loon. It is safe to say it earned the first name given by the northern native people, “Spirit of the North.”
Story & photos by Rebecca and Ross Clement