Travel Story Loony tunes: Canada's iconic bird leads the flock

Photo of Mark Thornton

Much-loved by Canadians, the loon can be found on the country's $1 coins — and in its spectacular lakes.

Soft evening light steals through lowering clouds over Atlin Lake in the far north of British Columbia. As I sit in quiet contemplation on the pebbly shore, an eerie wail, like that of a lost soul, breaks the silence — a sustained, mournful note that lingers before falling away.

It’s the evening call of the common loon to its mate, which immediately responds. For a moment, it resembles the howl of a wolf. It is something that cannot be forgotten; the haunting call of the wild. 

It’s enchanting and will remain with me for the rest of my life.

Ornithologists believe loons are the oldest family of birds, having been around for at least 20 million years. Unhappily, they were recently classified as endangered so the name “common” is becoming misleading; perhaps that’s why they sound so mournful. 

They are dearly loved by Canadians, and feature on their $1 coins, known as “loonies”. Under Canada’s Migratory Bird Convention Act, intentional harassment of loons is illegal and attracts hefty maximum penalties. Their significance becomes clear when I learn 95 per cent of the world’s common loons breed in Canada.

Loons are extraordinary birds. Their plumage is dramatically chequered, finely textured black and white, complete with a collar, as if they are wearing evening dress. They are big for diving birds: 1m long with a wingspan of 1.5m. They can dive to 60m and remain submerged for 15 minutes.

While primarily fish eaters, they also eat crustaceans and other invertebrates. They manage to swallow most of their prey under water but sometimes catch a fish so big they must bring it to the surface to eat. They have red eyes caused by a pigment in the retina that filters light when they dive, increasing their ability to see prey. 

Normally a single pair will inhabit a lake but when the lake is as big as Atlin many pairs are able to co-exist. At 136km long — about the driving distance from Perth to New Norcia — and 6km wide, glacier-fed Atlin Lake is the biggest in British Columbia. It’s also 300m deep. 

In the language of the Tlingit people, the original inhabitants, “Aa Tlein” means “big body of water”. It’s also the source of the mighty Yukon River that flows westwards for 3190km across the width of Alaska.

Much of northern Canada is so remote there would have to be loons that have never seen people but on Atlin Lake some are so blase you can get quite close to them and even spot them carrying their chicks on their backs. 

The lake has seen human traffic since the Klondike gold rush more than 100 years ago when prospectors used it as a major paddle route to the goldfields. The village of Atlin was founded to serve them. In those days, its population was about 10,000. Now it’s about 300, most of them attending to tourists, though there are still miners on the creeks feeding Surprise Lake, 20km to the north-east.

It’s a pretty village in a magnificent setting. On a clear day you can see Mt La Perouse (named by the same French explorer who visited Botany Bay) 220km away in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park. Most of the old gold-rush buildings are still there, including the post office, which has a big room on top where musicians gather. I was lucky enough to join some of their weekly jam nights. 

In First Street there’s a delightful general store where Corinne makes the finest eccles cakes I’ve tasted outside England, though she’s never been there. She too is a keen “birdo” and knows of a number of pairs of loons and their territories and where I should look for them. 

In many subsequent visits over a number of years I have become accustomed to the calls of loons on many lakes in B.C. and learnt they have four distinct calls: the tremolo, yodel, wail and hoot. Each call communicates a distinct message depending on the time of day or night — when they are most active — and the weather and season. A wail is a call to a separated chick or mate, a tremolo an aggressive response to disturbance by a human or predator, a yodel indicates aggression towards another male loon it sees as a competitor and a hoot is an expression of curiosity or happiness. 

Apparently the dramatic potential of their call is appreciated by filmmakers. Next time you hear an eerie cry in a haunted house or dark forest in a film, chances are it’s a loon.

One thing I’ve never seen is the “penguin dance”, when the loons paddle like mad and flash across the water in an upright position calling frantically in an attempt to scare off an intruder. This dance is possible because the birds’ feet are set right at the back of their bodies. This makes them excellent swimmers and divers but they find it difficult to walk and avoid land except when nesting. 

This clumsiness on land is why they’re called loons, yet they are powerful flyers once they manage to get airborne.

Loons appreciate exclusivity on their lake but in autumn when it’s time to migrate south, they congregate in large numbers and fly off together. For years ornithologists thought this was the only time they formed groups but some observers have seen them in late evening entertaining loons from other lakes or other parts of their own lake.

American writer Henry David Thoreau described a playful and inspiring acquaintance with a loon during his two years in a cabin on Walden Pond, Massachusetts, where he wrote the classic nature book Walden. He describes games of chase with the loon, which made the woods “ring with wild laughter”, prompting critics to describe the games as an allegory for his spiritual quest in the woods.

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