Loons return to the lake where we live in eastern Ontario soon after the ice goes out in April, yet they do not always nest nearby. This year (1990) was to be different; for the first time in over twelve years a pair of loons built a bulky nest on a low rocky islet near our home. It became a daily habit to check the safety and progress of the loon pair, and the brooding bird was usually attended by its mate swimming close by, uttering soft calls as encouragement.
The days passed and human activity on the lake increased as the bass fishing season got underway. Once July came the recreational activity really picked up and we became increasingly concerned for the success of the nesting family. On July 3rd, we found the nest empty and in a quiet area of the bay, the adult birds could be seen shepherding two small chicks.
Summer passed and the loon family could be seen regularly, despite all of the aquatic activity. One day, however, only a single chick could be seen, the other having succumbed to some misfortune or other. The lone chick thrived and was always accompanied by one or both parents. As it grew, the adult’s plumage changed from bright black and white to the winter grey. Several other loons came to share the lake, where the fishing was good.
With the decreasing daylight hours and the onset of cold weather, most of the loons departed for their winter sojourn on the ocean coast. A single loon lingered on, accompanied by one or two Ring-billed Gulls until finally, they too were gone. Ice began to form along the shore and in the bays. As the New Year approached, only narrow leads of open water remained. Previously we had noticed how the loons always seemed capable of determining when the lake would ice over completely, and they would be gone.
Now the lone bird remained, and was seen swimming vigorously and diving in a diminishing pond of open water which, each day, became smaller as the ice thickened and encroached from the sides. Eventually, the area of open water became too small to permit the loon to make its long take-off run.
One particularly cold and windy day, while I was sitting comfortably beside the woodstove, a flash of white caught my attention. I looked outside and there, beside the now very small pond of open water, stood a magnificent adult Bald Eagle. The eagle took up a position at the edge of the ice and then flew back and forth over the loon. Each time it passed overhead, the loon dove under the water.
This pattern of the eagle swooping over the loon and the loon diving under the surface continued for some time. Eventually, the loon became noticeably weaker after each submersion and the eagle became bolder until it swooped down and grasped the loon in its talons and attempted to lift the loon out of the water. Unable to do so, it released the loon and resumed its harassing tactics. Again, the eagle grabbed the loon but this time the loon pulled the eagle into the icy water. After much struggling and splashing, the eagle released its hold on the loon and flopped out of the water onto the ice, where it stood vigorously ruffling and shaking its feathers.
Once the water had been sprayed off its wings, the eagle flew up into a nearby tree where it continued to dry off and preen its feathers. Ashort time later, it flew away out of sight. Meanwhile, the loon, which had been looking very much the worse for wear, began to perk up and it too preened its feathers as it swam back and forth in the pond. That night, the temperature plummeted and at daylight, through the wind-driven snow, no open water or loon could be seen.
Bill Cutfield, Lyndhurst, Ontario, Canada