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Bird Poop: A loon regains its water wings

December 7, 2010

A southward migration takes the common loon to both coasts of North America, as well as the Gulf Coast and Baja, Calif. Mating for life, a pair will return to the same northern lake for many years. Diet includes fish, frogs, insects and aquatic vegetation. (Courtesy photo)

Lying on its side, the brownish gray bird struggled to pull itself toward the grassy median. Turbulence created by passing motorists sprayed fine bits of gravel and dust over its feathers and into its eyes. After reaching the edge of the asphalt, it could go no further. 
Resting after such an effort, it did not hear the vehicle stop some distance behind it.

Surprised by the hands that suddenly pressed against its wings and heavy body, the bird used its large webbed feet to push against the man’s waist. With its long, sharp bill it nipped at his arms.

As he entered the veterinary clinic, the man struggled to control the large, wriggling waterfowl. Because the bird had not tried to fly, the man felt the vet could tell if anything was wrong with its wings.

With a river coursing through San Angelo, and lakes Nasworthy, Twin Buttes and O. C. Fisher, Diane Tracy was surprised when her veterinarian called to ask if she could help with a loon. As he related the man’s story, she recalled previous conversations we had had regarding grebes, coots and loons during fall migration.

Mistaking the late afternoon sheen of asphalt for what it thought was the surface of a body of water, the loon had landed in a hopeless situation. Without the adequate length of a lake or pond, it would never have become airborne again. Only through running on top of the water could it obtain the forward momentum and air speed necessary for flight.

What kept it earthbound were the placement of its powerful legs and feet. Located near the back of its body, they enabled it to be an excellent diver and swimmer. As for walking, the appendages were useless.
Included as a subpermitee under my licenses, Diane quickly called to say she had placed the loon in her bathtub. “It’s sore from having lain on its side so long. I’m letting it exercise,” she continued. Noting there were small abrasions on the leg from either landing or pulling itself along on the pavement, she felt we needed to make the decision about its release.

By late morning, we met in Sterling City. As I lifted the common loon out of the carrier, it fought my every effort. Biting, kicking and squirming, the nine-pound bird was a handful of resistance. Tapered at both ends with the largest heft in the middle, the sleek migrant was the epitome of aquatic and aerodynamic planning.

Whether in the water or air, by stretching its long bill and neck, and its legs and feet, it could pierce watery depths or air with ease. Troubled, however, by Diane’s description of its leg, and our own assessment, we agreed that the next phase of the bird’s recovery meant a quick trip to Lubbock.

That afternoon, the common loon was allowed to swim and dine on minnows for several hours in a board member’s pond. After gauging its abilities and with expertise in handling and treating waterfowl, several South Plains volunteers and a veterinarian viewed differently what had been of concern to us. 

Later, it was transported to Buffalo Lake. What had been heavy in our hands became a buoyant, streamlined swimming wonder. For a bird that needed as much space to land as to take off, the loon now had its place. Its strength and speed on and in the water would easily be matched in the coming days by its strong, rapid, sustained flight during the rest of its migration.

To have handled the drab, gray creature with its fall and winter coat was just a prelude to the symphony of color it would acquire after an early spring molt. Accenting a glossy black head and neck, vertical black and white streaks would adorn its throat. Its black back would be checkered with white squares, while white dots decorated its black wings, sides and flanks. Even its bill would be black. 

In breeding coloration, the loon would fly northward to remote lakes hidden in forests. Its melodic, mournful sound would echo through the solitude of absolute wilderness. To us, it was anything but common.

Bebe McCasland is author of The Scoop from Bird Poop. She is federally and state licensed to rehabilitate wild birds.

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