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Columns I Wish Had Put in the e-Book: Part V

Four years ago, I wrote a column about loons that I wish I had room for in my new free ebook. "The Best of the Bird Watcher."

You can read it below. Photo above by Jill Homcy,

You can read a free online e-Book of "The Best of the Bird Watcher" here.

And you can download a pdf to view on an iPad or other mobile device here: Best of Bird Watcher coverDownload Best of the Bird Watcher Jim Wright

By Jim Wright
Special to The Record

  When folks in North Jersey think of loons, they usually picture a scenic Canadian lake and haunting calls.

  We also can see these athletic diving birds in this region -- actually two kinds of loons, the red-throated and the common.  But these waterbirds can be tough to find because they seldom stick around. They just pass through in migration.

 The much larger common loons have been heading back north of late. This accounts for recent sightings at the Lincoln Park Community Lake, the Celery Farm Natural Area in Allendale, Lake Tappan, and Mahwah’s Lake Henry.

  The Allendale loon stayed a few minutes. The two Lincoln Park loons hung out for more than a week.

   It’s when the loons try to land or take off here that problems sometimes result.  

   “The most interesting thing about loons is their feet are so far back on their bodies that they can only take off from water,” says Chris Soucy, executive director of The Raptor Trust, located south of Morristown.  

   “If they become grounded, they are essentially stuck and cannot return to the air.  When we get loons in for rehabilitation, it is almost always because they have become grounded.”

  Several years back, for example, a state environmental official had to assist a common loon at Whites Pond in Waldwick. The problem: the pond was too small for the bird to take off. It was coaxed into the nearby Hohokus Brook, where a long watery runway awaited.

  The loons’ leg location may sound like a big drawback, but Soucy says it’s usually to their advantage.

  “With their very strong legs set very far back on their bodies, they can swim, paddle and steer underwater with a great deal of speed and agility,  which enables them to pursue their prey -- primarily fish -- very effectively,” he explains.

  The loons’ leg location can also impact their landings. Such was the case of a red-throated loon, who mistook a huge puddle for a pond in a church parking lot in Hillsdale last month.

  Donna Pontrelli of the Franklin Lakes Animal Hospital picks up the story:  “Because the loon’s legs were so far back on its body, it had abrasions on its chest from falling forward on landing. And since it couldn’t take off from the puddle, its feet got stuck when the water froze.”

  Tyco Animal Control brought the bird to the animal hospital, which sent it along to The Raptor Trust. The bird was treated and released a few days later.

  A Raptor Trust Facebook post noted what a tough winter it had been for waterfowl.  Among the birds that received treatment were two ruddy ducks, a black duck, one gadwall, a lesser scaup and “a red-throated loon that was frozen to the ground and had to be chiseled out.”

  Pontrelli saw the irony of it all:  “Here is this incredible bird, with all sorts of physical attributes that enable it to fly and dive so well. Yet they need a kind human if they get in trouble.”