It's almost impossible to get that close to a loon on a northern lake.
There's a loon convention at Monona Terrace. Not the people kind, the bird kind. Last Saturday, April 4, I counted more than 30 loons from the bike path along John Nolen Drive.
Why so many when past years produced just a handful of migrants?
Scott Craven, a wildlife specialist at the UW-Madison, has never seen that many loons at one time in Madison before, adding that the numbers could be as high as 100. He says they're probably just waiting for spring to thaw northern lakes.
"With the rain and early warm spell here the Madison lakes opened up, whereas everything from central Wisconsin north is still locked in ice," says Craven. "I think they just got piled up here and are biding their time until they can head north... which is kind of nice for us!"
Anyone who's ever sat on a northern lake at dusk and listened to these birds knows what he means. Loons are the quintessential bird of the north and their haunting cry is otherworldly.
In fact, loons are from another world. Loon genetics can be traced to bird species that flew 25 million years ago. This makes them one of the most primitive birds on the planet.
They look prehistoric too. Their smooth black head, beady red eyes -- so they can see underwater -- and sharp beak strikes a distinctive profile on the water.
Even from a distance, there's no mistaking a loon from the ducks and mergansers around them. Yes, they're also big, heavy torpedo-like birds that hunt down small fish and amphibians while underwater. But the bones of loons, unlike other water birds, are solid, not hollow. This equips them to stay submerged for up to five minutes while hollow-boned mallards pop-up like corks.
I clocked average dive times at about one minute. I didn't have as much luck figuring out where a loon would resurface after a dive. Usually, he or she would move away from shore about 50 to 100 feet, making it all but impossible to get a good photo.
But finally, one popped up within 20 feet of me. That was pretty exciting. It's almost impossible to get that close to a loon on a northern lake. They're known for being reclusive and don't like odd sounds, noise or people. Plus, loons pairs are very territorial and nest one pair per lake. They may migrate together, but they do not nest together.
That's what makes their visit to Lake Monona all the more remarkable -- a large number of loons that seem oblivious to city sounds. It's an ephemeral spring moment.
All things loon, including excellent mp3s of vocalizations, are provided the LoonWatch Initiative of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute at Northland College.