A pair of Common Loons. (Gary J. Wedge/US Fish and Wildlife Service)

A pair of Common Loons. (Gary J. Wedge/US Fish and Wildlife Service)

On the Wing: Mountains, valleys, lakes and loons

“Loons are excellent indicators of water quality.”

By Margo Hearne

We are down in the valley, the Bulkley Valley in Smithers. The sun is out and the birds are singing, just like home really but with a few more mountains. We have seen and heard many new songs. Two Ospreys soar high overhead — perhaps there is an occasional trout left in the small lakes near town but they are more likely to be fishing the Bulkley River, that huge waterway that cuts its way to the sea. The Bulkley is 257 kilometers long and drains a basin covering 12,400 km2 so it is no small stream. After it leaves Bulkley Lake, the Morice River near Houston joins it then the Bulkley continues on to join the Skeena near Hazelton.

It’s a massive river system, once the main highway between villages. Now the rivers run mostly parallel to Highway 16, the modern highway. The river used to be called the Wet’sinkwha (blue and green river) by the Wet’suwet’en, the original people of the valley. But the name was changed to Bulkley after Charles Bulkley, the engineer in charge of a survey team that explored the area in 1866.

Meanwhile, the Ospreys soar, a Mountain Bluebird sits on a wire, and just down a bit, two Savannah Sparrows preen. It’s been a cool spring and the birds are a little late here as well as elsewhere. Out on a small lake near town, four Common Loons drift on the calm water. They are in full breeding plumage and wait just offshore until the local camp kids in canoes move away from the lake edge. If the loons have eggs they won’t have hatched yet, so the parent birds are anxious to get back to the nest before the eggs get cold.

It is lovely to see the loons all in full plumage on their home lakes, knowing that they will probably head out to Hecate Strait after nesting season. They will shed their sharply defined black-and-white plumage for their grey winter colours. Common Loons, like many species, are on a decline, mostly from disturbance during nesting season — the wake from powerboats can wash out their nest and they usually don’t have time to re-nest in the short northern summers. They only lay one or two eggs, incubated for almost a month, and the young leave the nest after a day or two.

Covered in soft down, the young are able to swim and ride on their parents’ backs within hours of hatching. Loons nest in quiet, protected, hidden spots of lakeshore, typically in the lee of islands or in a sheltered back bay. They can’t walk very well on land so they build close to a bank, often with a steep drop-off that allows the bird to approach the nest from underwater.

Loons are excellent indicators of water quality. They need crystal-clear lakes, which makes it easier for them to see prey underwater, and lakes with abundant populations of small fish. They also prefer lakes with coves and islands that provide cover from predators while resting and nesting. The lake also has to be big enough to allow for their flapping-and-running takeoffs across the water. So there they are, out in the small lakes around Smithers, in suitable habitat for their necessary needs.

On the Wing