by Sheryl DeVore
The last time common loons
nested in Illinois was in 1892, in Lake County. But the unique birds with their
eerie tremolos can still be seen and heard each spring during migration as they
rest and feed in Lake Michigan, deep inland lakes in the Chicago area and large
a loon in March is the perfect antidote for cabin fever,” says Jeff Sanders, a
Skokie resident who leads a Lake-Cook Audubon Society
trip for the public at the end of March. “Loons are so majestic. They seem to
have a calmness about them,” he says. The loons are flying north in spring from
southern coastlines to their breeding spots near northern Canadian lakes. The
Chicago region is in their migratory pathway.
loons (Gavia immer), called “great northern divers” in Europe, can be
identified fairly easily because they are larger than other waterfowl such as
mallard ducks. They sit low in the water and in spring, are wearing their
breeding plumage. Both male and female have an almost iridescent, greenish-black,
angular head, red eyes, white necklace and black-and-white checkerboard back.
They also have a daggerlike bill for spearing fish when they dive underwater.
When they dive, they return to a completely
different spot from where they started. Loons are not at all adept on land
because their feet are so closely positioned to their bodies. That helps them propel
underwater to get their prey of fish. Although most birds have hollow bones,
the loon has some solid bones that help them while fishing underwater. However,
the solid bones also make it more difficult for the loon to take off from
water. They need some room to flap and skim as if on a runway before becoming
Loons can typically be
seen in this region about the middle of March through mid-April, with some
lingering into mid-May and an occasional individual spending the summer. But
they haven’t nested here in more than 100 years. Loons have not only
disappeared as breeding species in Illinois, but also Indiana, Iowa and Ohio,
according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In the Midwest and eastern U.S., loons
continue to nest in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. (Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife)
They require large, deep
lakes with islands for nesting and do not tolerate human disturbance. Lead
poisoning from fishing sinkers and mercury-laden pollution emitted by power
plants negatively affect the loons’ breeding success. It’s too cold to get out
the motorboats in March and April in the Chicago region, and that gives loons
flying north a place to feed and rest for a bit.
When the ice begins to
thaw on lakes, that’s the time to look, according to Sanders. “The best time is
when at least a quarter or half of the lake is still ice,” he says. “It keeps
the water calmer. There are not a lot of waves. It means the loons have just
come in they’re not in a hurry to leave when they lakes are half frozen.”
loons can sometimes be seen singly, in pairs or even by the dozens on Diamond
Lake, in Mundelein, Pistakee Lake, in Fox Lake, Bangs Lake, in Wauconda, and
other deep bodies of water populated with fish the loons eat for energy to fly
north, according to David Johnson, of Buffalo Grove. He has led public loon
tours for the Evanston North Shore Bird Club
and the Illinois Ornithological Society.
that know the right place to look are practically guaranteed a view of at least
one and likely more than one loon at a time in deep waters of the region,
Johnson and Sanders agree.
says he first started watching loons by attending Johnson’s loon tours, which
begin at Diamond Lake. Then they travel to other deep, glacial lakes in the
region. Loon lovers also check spots along Lake Michigan such as Montrose
Point, in Chicago, and Gillson Park, in Wilmette, to search for the northern
divers. “But sometimes the lake is choppy, so it can be difficult to get good
looks at them,” Sanders says.
Lund, of Genoa, Illinois, often joins Johnson a day before he leads field trips
to see loons in spring. One year, they saw nearly 700 loons on one day in Lake
and McHenry counties, she notes. Deep lakes in Cook and DuPage counties also
attract loons in spring, according to Vince Moxon, of Wheaton. One of his
favorite loon-watching lakes is Silver Lake, at Blackwell Forest Preserve, in
migration, especially early in the morning, loons give their haunting yodels and
tremolos, invoking a sense of the north woods. Observers can see loons flap
their wings, sometimes practically standing on their hind legs to display for
females. They also watch them sink low into the water like a submarine before
diving to feed and then when they re-emerge above the surface.
It can be quite cold when
looking for loons, and over the years, Johnson said he and his loony friends
have endured 29-degree temperatures with snow squalls and high winds. Some
years, it’s balmy watching loons. Observers should dress in layers and be
prepared for cold and wind.
Mark Wallner, who lives
just over the border in Wisconsin, looks for loons at Sand Lake, at the north
unit of Illinois Beach State Park, in Zion. One year, he saw 21 loons on the
small lake. He guesses it was because the weather had turned cold and the loons
knew better than to continue flying north, where lakes would still be frozen.
“It was fun to watch them bully the red-breasted mergansers once in a while by
sneaking up on them from under the water and scaring them,” Wallner says.
While watching loons,
observers also can see a variety of other migratory waterfowl, Sanders says in
March and April, observers often see mergansers, goldeneyes, scaup, bufflehead,
ring-necked ducks and redheads that dive for food in deep lakes, just as the
loons do. “You’ll be able to pick out the loons because they are two or three
times bigger than the ducks,” Sanders says.
Sheryl DeVore has written
six books on science, health and nature. She also writes nature, health and
environment stories for national and regional publications.
Loons: How and Where to Find Them
Those looking in spring for
loons might try the following places from mid-March to mid-April. Bring a scope
and/or binoculars, and stay off private property. Dress in layers and be
prepared for cold, wind and seasonal outdoor conditions. More identification
tips can be found in bird books and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: AllAboutBirds.org/guide/Common_Loon/id. (Photo: Nat Carmichael)
Mundelein. Park in the lot across the street from the lake, next to Gale Street
Inn, Diamond Lake Rd. Walk across the street to look for loons on the lake.
Pistakee Lake, Fox
Lake. Park at the dead end intersection of Grand Ave. west of U.S. 12 next to
Independence Grove Forest
Preserve, 16400 Buckley Rd.,
Maple Lake. Entrance
is off Wolf Rd., south of 95th St., near Willow Springs.
Silver Lake, Blackwell Forest Preserve. Entrance is
off Butterfield Rd., west of Winfield Rd. Park at the top of the hill at the
north end where the loons are generally seen.
Loon Viewing Trips to Join
appropriate clothing, including layers if it’s cold.
Lake-Cook Audubon Society will meet at 8
a.m. Mar. 29, in the
parking lot across the street from Diamond Lake on Diamond Lake Rd., in
Mundelein. No registration is necessary. Car pooling is encouraged: LakeCookAudubon.org.
Evanston North-Shore Bird Club usually holds a loon trip the
first weekend in April: ensbc.org/trips. (Photo: Dan Kassebaum)