August 24, 2019
By Tiffany Grade, Squam Lakes biologist, Loon Preservation Committee
Photos by Anna Boudreau, LRCT’s Development Director
What are those (crazy!) loons doing? “Teenage” loons! Like humans, loons have a protracted “teenage” period; and, also like humans, teenage loons are out exploring their world and taking on adult responsibilities but also still driving their parents crazy! Three of the Squam Lakes loon chicks have entered that teenage stage (and the other 2 aren’t far behind!): they have lost all of their down, are in their beautiful juvenal plumage, and are able to catch some of their own food. It will still be another week or so before they can catch enough fish to completely feed themselves–this happens around week 10–but they are certainly well on their way! You may be lucky enough to witness feeding session with these teen loons, in which the chicks are busily diving and the adults were even more busily bringing up lots of fish and crayfish for the chicks. But even once they can completely feed themselves, young loons, like teenagers the world over, are not going to pass up a free meal if they can get it! I’ve seen 16+-week-old chicks begging mercilessly from their parents, who end up looking very harassed. Loon chicks beg by pecking at the parent’s neck or bill–I can only imagine being on the receiving end of that from a ravenous loon chick! But loons are wonderful parents, and they invariably end up obliging their demanding chicks!
Along with catching their own food, other adult responsibilities come with being a teen loon as well–most importantly, the business of flying. By 12 weeks old, the flight feathers of these young loons will have grown in and they will begin learning how to fly. Of course, this doesn’t happen easily. As heavy-bodied birds with small wings, loons have a hard enough time getting into the air. But, if you’re a young loon trying to learn, things are especially difficult. I’ve seen young loons running across the water, trying to get airborne, and ending up making a face plant back into the lake. But eventually they get the hang of it, just in time for migration.
Adult loons leave the lake around mid-late October, although loons with chicks may stay into early November. The adults generally leave between several days to a week apart; and, after the second adult has left, the chicks usually leave a few days to a week later. Like adults, New Hampshire chicks likely migrate to the New England coast, anywhere from Rhode Island up to Maine—although you may remember that the Moon Island female from 2018 was recovered (sadly dead, from lead poisoning from ingested lead fishing tackle) last fall off of Cape May, New Jersey. So we still have a lot to learn about where New Hampshire’s loons all go! Once on the ocean, young loons spend the next two years there growing up. Loons don’t mature until they are three years old, so young loons stay out on the ocean as teenagers. They are in an immature plumage, which differs from the juvenal plumage by lacking the pronounced scalloped pattern on the back that you can see right now on the older chicks of the Squam Lakes. At 2.5 years old, they finally molt into the striking black-and-white plumage with the bright red eye that is so characteristic of loons; and, the following spring (their third year), is when they finally travel back to the freshwater lakes as mature loons.
But, along the way, teenage loons have many adventures! I’ve seen young loons posturing and trying to intimidate each other, going through exactly the same motions and positions as adults in a conflict situation. I’ve also seen teen loons learning from their parents the oh-so-important adult responsibility of picking on cormorants–and then trying it out themselves! And, of course, there are plenty of free meals from their obliging parents before they are on their own. Young loons have a lot to learn, and I wish the chicks of the Squam Lakes all the best while negotiating the trying life of a teenage loon!