Monday, August 16, 2010

Things That Fly Around Ponds

I rode back to the house, cleaned up, and headed to the airport. I dropped the minivan off in long-term parking, caught the shuttle to the terminal, and a few hours later met up with my family at my parents’ place in the suburbs of Boston.

Tangent: For many years, I never, ever wrote down where I parked the car in long-term parking. This was part of my Navigational-Pride/Only-Monkeys-Use-a-GPS schtick I’ve mentioned previously in this blog. Then, coming home late one night about a year ago, with AW and the Trifecta waiting for me at baggage claim, I totally blanked, and had to call the “Can’t Remember Where You Parked?” number. A cheerful older woman in a pick-up showed up about 5 minutes later to help me find my car. Immediately she asked whether I new my license plate number, which I did*, whereupon she radioed it in and promptly was told the exact location of my car, to which she then drove me. So the point is, every night, someone drives around the entire long-term parking lot (maybe 5,000, 10,000 cars?) and manually records/enters every single license plate. Isn’t that mind-boggling?

*Because I have this weird thing about numbers, too. For several years at my pre-acquisition company I never programmed a speed-dial, priding myself on knowing from memory the numbers of the 20 or 30 people I most commonly phoned. This kind of crap BTW is probably why my Dunbar number is so low- because I have filled so much brain-real-estate with junk like phone #’s and Dead Milkmen lyrics. More about my weird brain- and the human brain in general- in the post after the post after next**.

**That’s right, the post after the post after next. Because even though it seems like this project is random and I’m just typing whatever comes into my head, I have a plan. I think ahead. This thing is going somewhere.

Later in the week we drove up to my family’s cabin on the lake in Maine, as we have the past couple of summers. We had a wonderful 6 days swimming, canoeing, sailing and spending time with family. In previous years I’ve posted about the flora and geology of the lakes; this year my mind was more on birds, or I should say, things that fly.

IMG_66415 Tangent: Speaking of swimming, you may recall from the last post that I had/have a significant open wound on my hand. When the doctor stitched me up, he told me that swimming was out of the question for the next couple of weeks. I pleaded that I was going on vacation, that I needed to swim, but the doctor was adamant. I sulked and stewed on the flight East.

Nested Tangent: The doctor and I chit-chatted while he worked. He mentioned that he was a runner, and enjoyed the sport, but found running on a treadmill boring. I asked why he didn’t run outdoors, and his answer was that he avoids all unnecessary UV exposure. About 20 years ago he decided that smoking, obesity and UV exposure were the principal aging agents, and that he would avoid all 3. So the guy almost never goes outside during the day.

As he told me this (I lying there, clad in shorts and T-shirt, my deeply-tanned limbs laid out on the table) 2 thoughts entered my head: First, that Dr. Dracula* and I clearly had fundamentally different levels of risk tolerance, and second, that I was absolutely going to swim in Maine.

*Although I am poking fun, I should point out that in terms of timeliness, helpfulness, attitude and professionalism, this was probably the single best medical care experience of my life (IHC Instacare on 900 East).

IMG_6642 My mother, a woman of great pragmatism and common sense, suggested the solution (pic right). My only enhancement was to use 2, rather than 1, condoms, because, well, you can never have too much protection*.

*Admittedly- and embarrassingly- the protection failed one day, and the bandage did get a bit damp. I say embarrassingly because one of my pet peeves is condom failure. You’re always hearing about condoms failing or coming off or what-not, and I’m always like, who are these idiots? In my younger years I had significant experience with condoms, and I am telling you, using a condom is not rocket science. Who are all these dopes who can’t manage it? Really? You can’t use a condom effectively? Can you walk and chew gum? Can you make toast? But last week, in my mid-forties, I finally experienced condom failure. I guess the only Safe Swimming is No Swimming.

Wow. Lots of tangents. Am I ever going to get rolling with this post? Yes I am, and it’s going to be awesome. You know why? Because it is chock-full of Awesome Graphics*, that’s why.

*Don’t you just love graphics in a blog? I always wonder why more bloggers don’t include them…

The Post, Already

loon Here’s a cool thing about Five Kezar Ponds: for more than 2 decades, they’ve been a regular summer breeding site for Gavia immer, the Common Loon. (pic left, not mine)

When you first see a loon, you may assume it’s just sort of a wild goose, but it’s very different. The ancestry of Loons (G. immer is 1 of 5 species worldwide) is still unresolved. For a long time it was thought they were closely-related to Grebes, but more recently it’s thought that many of the shared features of these birds are the result of convergent evolution, and that Loons are more closely-related to Cormorants. Loons summer and breed in bodies of freshwater at Northern latitudes. They shy away from excessive human development and pollution, and favoring locations such as small islands where they can safely nest away from terrestrial predators.

If you were to see a Loon on land, its structural difference from a goose would be immediately obvious. The (webbed) feet of Loons are set way far back on the body. This makes them strong, fast and maneuverable swimmers; it’s said that Loons swim as well underwater as any flying bird. I’ve never seen Loons swim underwater, but both Bird Whisperer and Brother Phil have seen them in the clear shallow waters underneath the small bridge by our cabin, and say that they move unbelievably quickly- almost fish-like.

Loons hunt fish- trout, perch, sunfish, etc, as well as things like crayfish. They hunt by sight, which is another reason they favor clear, clean water, and they swallow fish whole, usually head-first. The inside of a Loon’s beak contains an array of rearward-facing points, which help ensure that a fish is swallowed once it enters its mouth.

But on land, their way-back feet mean that they can’t stand up; a Loon’s belly always rests on the ground, and they “walk” by pushing/sliding their chests across the land. Loons practically never leave the water except to mate and nest, and they can’t take to the air from land.

IMG_6681 You’ll sometimes read that Loons are monogamous and mate for life, but it seems now that they’re monogamous in a more serial fashion. Somewhat soberingly- for those of us who think of the birds as serene and peaceful- this serial aspect of their pairing is the result of force- a loon being ejected from an established nesting site by a challenger.

Perhaps the most notable, well-known and enchanting aspect of loons are their calls. Often at the lake I’ll awake in the night to their haunting, beautiful cries. But the cry of the loon is almost always a threat, indicating an established territory and warning off would-be trespassers and challengers. Territories and nesting sites are selected by males, who defend them rigorously. When a male is displaced by a challenger, the conflict results in his death about 1/3 of the time. Survivors fly to other lakes, seeking to establish/usurp for themselves elsewhere.

baby on back Males and females share nesting and chick-rearing duties. Eggs take 4 weeks to hatch. Chicks can swim and dive immediately, but often ride on the back of a parent for a couple of weeks (pic left, not mine), probably to avoid predators. On land raccoons, crows, ravens and eagles are common threats. In the water I’d guess snapping turtles are the biggest danger on our lakes. Young Loons are able to fly by about 12 weeks of age.

Side Note: Somewhat frustratingly, males and females have the same plumage, as do young loons within a couple of months. So I’m rarely able to determine who’s who in a group.

Loons are so well-adapted to water, they almost make you think of Penguins (except that the latter are far more mobile on land). But Loons still fly, and do so magnificently.

Loonar Landings

When a flying Loon lands, it always does so on water, and does so differently from a duck or a goose. A duck/goose hits the water feet first, and uses its “heels” to scrub off speed.

Duck Landing But a Loon lands chest-first, and slides a ways on its belly before its feet enter the water.

Loon Landing But it’s take-off that’s the sight to see. Loons are heavy, long-bodied birds with relatively small wings, which means they need long runways. Loon take-off is a noisy, wet affair; an initial flurry of splashing is followed by a rhythmic slapping of the water as the bird gradually becomes airborne, its wingtips hitting the water with each downstroke. After a hundred(?) yards or so the slapping stops as the wings clear the water.

5KezarEskerMap4But the bird doesn’t just fly away. No, it slowly climbs upward, inching its way higher and higher on the most modest of inclines. On a pond/lake the size of ours (~1/3 mile across), this means that the Loon must do “laps”. Usually 2 or 3 circuits of the lake are needed to clear treeline. The lake is surrounded by hills, with the exception of the low esker separating our lake from the adjoining “Middle Pond” and this is usually the exit flight-path from “Back Pond”. When the bird passes overhead on these “laps”, the powerful “whoosh-whoosh!” of its downstrokes is clearly audible.


Now, I tried- I really did- to film a take-off. But they only happen maybe 1 – 3 times /day, usually early in the morning (when the water is calm?), and you have to be lightning fast to hear the splashing, drop what your doing, and get down to the beach with camera in hand and turned-on in time. So I didn’t get it, but I have 2 quick clips of a Loon passing overhead while lapping upward. Here’s what you’ll see:

Loon Video Guide1 Here’s the first clip. Turn up the volume and you’ll hear the downstrokes.

In the 2nd clip, here’s what you’ll see as he/she passes over again, clearing the esker and leaving the lake.

Loon Video Guide2

There are a couple of things that fascinate me about Loons. The first- a topic that always fascinates me in animals- is their seeming in-between-ness. Just like the Sea Lions in La Jolla, these are creatures that have adapted to water so well, that their movement on land seems a shuffling kludge. And in this case, the in-between-ness leads to another fascinating bird vs. mammal comparison.

IB Spectrum[4][4] With mammals, gestation and delivery of young were no obstacle in returning to the sea. Giving birth underwater is no big deal; hell, back in the 70’s it was the next big thing. Remember that? Give birth underwater, reduce the amount of shock/change to the newborn, blah, blah… And if the descendants of Sea Lions evolved to be more and more adept in the water, and more and more inept on land, well then in theory there’s no obstacle to them eventually achieving* “whale-hood.”

*Dirty word, I know. Evolution doesn’t have goals or direction. Guess I could’ve said “arriving”, but it sounds awkward.

But birds lay eggs. How/where would a bird-whale lay an egg in open water*? And maybe that’s why, despite many wonderfully water-adapted birds in the world- penguins, auks, etc.- none have achieved “whale-hood”, or effected a complete return to the sea.

*Yes, I know fish lay eggs. But the heavy, water-impermeable, land-adapted eggs of birds (arguably one of the crowning achievements** of reptilian evolution) are a whole different deal, and it’s hard to envision an incremental selection-path that would revert them to the tiny, water-permeable, roe-ish things of their ancient ancestors. Kind of like a whale re-evolving gills.

**Oops. Used the dirty word again- sorry.

Loonar Perspective

The second thing is how Loons think about and see the world. Yes, I know I’ve done a post about avian intelligence, but I’m not talking about that. (Besides, Loons aren’t thought to be particularly smart.) I’m talking about how a bird that lives on freshwater, but can only land on and take off from bodies of a minimum size, sees the world. In short, Loons must see the world sort of like a seaplane sees it. A seaplane can land on practically any lake. But it requires a big/long enough lake to take back off again, and clear whatever trees/terrain surround the lake. Otherwise, it’ll never get out.

Loons face the exact same challenge. If a Loon lands on a pond with too little runway, it’ll never get out. And even if that pond is filled with fish and clean water, when winter comes, that bird is dead. It can’t possibly walk to another pond. So when a Loon is flying a couple hundred feet up in the air, and spies a pond/lake/river below, it must immediately somehow assess the dimensions of that pond, and surrounding terrain. Big lakes are probably no-brainers, but a pond less than ~1/2 mile across must require some kind of quickie-analysis. How does the loon do this? Does it consciously map out future exit routes, or is it instinctive, as when we walk toward a doorway? When we approach a doorway, we don’t sit there and scan/measure it- we just see it and “know” we can pass through it. And even more interestingly, how does the Loon acquire this “assessment” ability? Is it instinctive, or is it learned somehow from parents?

Loons do, from time to time, screw up. Occasionally one will land in a pond from which it can’t escape. Even more sadly, Loons have been known to mistake roadways for waterways, crashing- and stranding- on asphalt. Oil spills BTW are deadly to them; they can neither take off nor dive/hunt effectively with oil-clogged feathers.

IMG_6824 I imagine a Loon flying over Western Maine sees the landscape as sort of a puzzle. Countless lakes and ponds, each with their own aspect, opportunity and challenge. Imposed on this puzzle is a matrix of territories, and as a roving loon scans the land, he assesses the weak points in this matrix as he makes sense of the puzzle. The right assessment of weakness, size, aspect and terrain, can lead to companionship, family and a continued genetic legacy. The wrong assessment can bring death in any number of frightening, lonely ways.

Next Up: More- yes more(!) - things that fly around ponds.


Phil O. said...

"Loons are heavy, long-bodied birds with relatively small wings, which means they need long runways."

I thought Loons had solid bones, no? Very unusual for birds. (Disclaimer: my source is Momscience)

Parking garages at airports: At Logan, your printed receipt will tell you the location of your car if it's been parked more than 1 day. Which means they can associate the ticket you take when you arrive at the garage with your car. I think they take a photo/scan of your license when you arrive, and then drive around and scan (not manually write down) plates each day/night so the association between your ticket and your parking spot can be made. (I'm always curious to know if this were to work with an out-of-state or Canadian plate -- i.e., how smart is the scanning?).

KanyonKris said...

Loonar Landing - nice pun.

I watched some young ducks swimming underwater at Silver Lake and thought they could swim fast. Loons must be a blur - cool.

There are camera systems for cop cars that can "read" license plates. If I ran an airport parking lot, that's what I'd use.

Watcher said...

Phil- I remember that tidbit from the same source and poked around a bit to confirm it. Some sources said "solid", others said, "nearly solid."

My favorite Momscience moment: going to Maine takes more gas than coming home, because Maine is North, and North is "up" on the map...

Lucy said...

Hilarious. Especially the contrast between you and the Doc. Hats off to your mom for inventing such a fine bandage covering.
When I saw the oblique photo of the lakes you used in your graphics, I thought, "how convenient he found a photo online of just what he needed for his post." I didn't realize your dedication to this blog bordered on obsession. ;-)
I learned a lot about loons in this post too.

Enel said...

Great post. I have always loved loons. You betcha they're fast if they can catch a trout (and they can). The can dive 300ft deep IIRC.

Loved the video graphic.

Please tell me you have taken that bandage off your finger. If not, do so immediately before you get stiff in your nearly 50 yo joints. So many docs are such wusses about wounds and water. There is no evidence that water increases wound infection rates, but we still believe it is best kept perfectly dry with bacteria and blood encrusted all over it. Oh, and it stinks.

I tell people to keep it dry one day, then wash daily with soap and water in the shower, and put polysporin thickly on the wound (like Jelly on a sandwich), then put a band aid on it. Swimming in lakes might not be the brightest idea, but there is no evidence I know of against it.

Enel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Watcher said...

Jube- "didn't realize your dedication to this blog bordered on obsession"... Talk to AW.

Enel- yes bandage has been off for a week+. I still cover it with a bandaid during the day just because it's tender when I brush the bare bed. (That and it looks pretty gross.)

penhaligon said...

It's been a while since I've had time to read one of your posts and I have enjoyed this one =3

I like that I get to learn about water-loving birds and also indulge in condom-failure anecdotes.

Mostly I like that I get to read things by someone as curious as me, who sees things in nature and wants to know how and why they are formed that way.

Your mountain climbing efforts are indeed appreciated! The graphics were very clear and informative :D