There's a loon convention at Monona Terrace. Not the people kind, the bird kind. Last Saturday, April 4, more than 30 loons were visible from the bike path along John Nolen Drive.
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!"
Loons are the quintessential bird of the north, and their haunting cry is otherworldly. Their 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 cut a distinctive profile - smooth black head, beady red eyes (so they can see underwater) and sharp beak.
Even from a distance, there's no mistaking a loon from the ducks and mergansers around them. Unlike these other water birds, their bones are solid, not hollow. This equips them to stay submerged for up to five minutes while hollow-boned mallards pop up like corks.
It's rare for loons to spend time in or near cities, coming close enough to shore to photograph. They're known for being reclusive and don't like odd sounds, noise or people. Plus, loon 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.
For more loon info and excellent MP3s of their vocalizations, see here.