No Virginia, That’s Not a Wolf
After a late start out of Gorham and the 12-mile haul over Mount Hayes, Cascade and the Trident peaks, crossing mucky bog bridges, and a final scramble over downed trees and boulders the size of La-Z-Boys, northbound Appalachian Trail hikers enter a landscape populated by pristine lakes. You arrive at Gentian Pond as the sun is just beginning to dip below the ridgeline. In the gathering dusk, you’ve pitched your tent amid susurrant hemlocks, changed into camp clothes, hung your bear bag, collected water. You’ve reviewed your plan for tomorrow’s mileage. The late July air is heavy with the drone of mosquitoes that have finally driven you to bed. You are dozing off to low conversations of nearby hikers when the stillness is rent by a solitary, drawn-out wail. Another answers, and another, echoing howls amplified through hovering stratums of fog suspended over tannic waters.
Flashbacks from every B-grade horror film set off alarms in your head. Hairs on the back your neck rise and adrenaline surges through your body as you struggle to make sense of this feral, visceral voice, this perceived danger. “Holy Shit!” you think. You’ve not only heard a lone wolf calling, but a whole wolf pack!
Except—you haven’t. Those aren’t wolves. They’re loons.
As an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, you are much more likely to see a bear strolling through New Jersey—of all places—than you are a wolf in Maine. While a population of eastern wolves roam in southern Québec, according to the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, no wild wolves have resided in the Northeast United States since they were exterminated in the late 19th century.
For those of us calling the upper Midwest, the Adirondacks, or New England home, common loons are summer sirens and, as superb indicators of water quality, they are the perfect poster child for wilderness. They are embossed upon Minnesota license plates and appear on the 11-sided, one-dollar “loonie” Canadian coin. They are uncredited backup singers to every TV fishing show.
It’s ice-out season here in the North Woods and I’m anticipating the return of these avian symbols of summer camps and camping trips. North America is home to five species of loons, but the common loon is the most widespread and well-known species. It is the only one that breeds as far south as New Hampshire.
Loons are territorial and vocal. They are the most vocal mid-May through mid-June, but can be heard throughout the summer. Loons arrive on northern lakes as soon as the ice thaws. After sundown, waters reverberate with nocturnal choruses of tremolos, wails, and yodels, or what writer John McPhee menacingly refers to as “the laugh of the deeply insane.” On the other hand, naturalist John Muir wrote of their calls as “one of the wildest and most striking of all the wilderness sounds.”
Like ducks, geese, and cormorants, the sleek black-and-white checkered plumed loons with a distinctive dark-green banded neck and red eyes are water birds—not wolves—and belong to their own unique classification (Family Gaviidae). Their closest living relatives are penguins and a group of seabirds that include albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters.
Voices on a Golden Pond
Now that you realize you’re hearing a bird, one that weighs about the same as a one-month-old wolf pup, but who is never-the-less still a bird, settle back in that goose down quilt and listen for three hauntingly distinctive calls.
The tremolo, or the “crazy laugh,” is a wavering call given when a loon advertises its presence at a lake. Or, if you are Katharine Hepburn arriving On Golden Pond. “The loons, the loons!” she repeatedly exalts in her own warbling voice.
The tremolo also signals alarm or is used while defending territory. A slightly modified, more cheerful undulating version of the tremolo, “the laughing call,” can be heard during flight.
The wail call is the vocalization most often misidentified as a howling wolf. It is used during social interactions between loons to help determine each other’s location. A two-wail variation is used specifically to warn others of a bald eagle sighting, who are natural predators of loons and their chicks.
While the male of the species is neither Hank Williams nor the more recent Coachella 2018 “Walmart yodeling kid” phenom, male loons do yodel. Their long rising territorial call with repetitive notes can last up to six seconds and be as lovely—or as maddening—as that of a whippoorwill. One yodeling loon will often elicit a chorus response from other loons in the area. Like a West Side Story cable channel movie marathon, Jet yodel boasts and Shark tremolo taunts can be traded all night long.
Loons use two other calls to communicate to each other, more often heard by boaters out on the lakes. The hoot is a one-note call that sounds more like “hot” or “whoot.” Family members use this to locate each other. A fifth courtship-specific vocalization is the mew. Both males and females use this quieter version of the hoot when selecting breeding mates.
Other Fascinating Loon Facts
- Loons are water birds, only going ashore to mate and incubate eggs. Their legs are placed far back on their bodies, allowing efficient swimming but only awkward movement on land.
- Unlike most birds, loons have solid bones that make them less buoyant and better at diving. Once below the surface, the loon’s heart slows down to conserve oxygen.
- Loons can quickly blow air out of their lungs and flatten their feathers to expel air within their plumage, so they not only dive quickly, but can swim fast underwater. They swim by propelling themselves by their feet.
- Even though loons are agile swimmers, but they move pretty fast in the air, too. Migrating loons have been clocked flying at speeds more than 70 mph.
- Loons are like airplanes in that they need a runway for takeoff. In the case of loons, they need from 30 yards up to a quarter-mile (depending on the wind) for flapping their wings and running across the top of the water in order to gain enough speed for lift-off.
- A group of loons has many collective nouns, including an “asylum,” “cry,” “loomery,” “raft,” and “water dance” of loons.
Source: Cornell School of Ornithology
If you want to really hear wolves, you’re going to need to hike beyond Katahdin. Or head west. Or watch a horror movie. Otherwise, settle into that hammock or tent or lakeside shelter and listen to the asylum of loons.
Want to Hear and Learn More?
Visit these sites where you can hear the most common eerie, haunting and beautiful sounds of wilderness. Or Katharine Hepburn’s thespian imitation.
Photo credit: Matt MacGillivary, Creative Commons
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