Monday, February 27, 2012

Species Profile: Common Loon

Just by reviewing the title, many of you are wondering why in the heck would anyone care to know about such a's not even a huntable species! True - it's not, but that doesn't mean it isn't a shootable species. Common loons are beautiful birds, but they will swim in and under your decoy spread. I've even has these giant divers swim right up to the bank of my blind, and upon stepping into the water to realign the fakes, it startled me so bad that I nearly gave up duck hunting for good. Nevertheless, it is a shootable species - one that is shot without regard for the species, North Carolina's game laws, or the Migratory Bird Treaty. Shame on those for shooting a smuthead or speckleback as they are called colloquially in many downeast burgs.  Loon shooting was, and some say still is, a warm and rich tradition carried out in and around Cape Lookout and it's barrier islands.

Common loons look like a giant duck. There's no telling how many succumb to the bores of the Raleigh Riff-Raff on an annual basis. In flight, they could appear to be a goose. On Harker's Island, though, everyone knows what these birds look and taste like. Loons are large diving birds with a diver-like bill that's used to catch, spear, and eat fish. You won't catch them over your local corn pile, unless of course there are fish feeding near it. I've heard tales of many believeing that they had killed a giant black duck loon is the more glamorous cousin of the cormorant, America's Ugliest Animal. The cormorant is most often mistook for a goose or black duck. How it happens, I don't know, but I'm not dumb, so it's tough to imagine. Some people knowingly shoot these birds as they are either banes to a fish trap operation or because they just like to eat them.

Loon shooting in Harker's Island goes way back. Like 1800's back...either way, the folks down there were always resourceful and even had habits of shooting mergansers for food, if they lived "up the river" in downeast Carteret County. I'm big on tradition, but when it comes to Loon shooting, I'm also big on confusion. Still, the birds, when harvested, were parboiled (to reduce the fishiness) and then deep-fried (everything tastes better when fried, right). Sometimes, the back and neck meat of a loon was stewed. I'm not big on fish stew, so I can't imagine I would like loon stew. Nevertheless, other parts of the loon were used, too. The hollow leg bones were used to make fishing lures, or jigs, as many f us would call them. Either way, that's ingenious, resourceful, and practical. Old timers had a way of shooting a pile of game, and then using every last bit of it. The feathers were even used to line mattresses.

So how did they shoot loons? Well, as most of you know, the migration north generally commences in March. Core Sounders would watch the loons come in from the Atlantic into the fishy waters of Core Sound and feed on fish - storing up energy reserves for nesting and the long flight back that precedes nesting. Either way, the less than wary birds would cross the barrier islands at very low altitudes...and hunters would position themselves on high dunes or near pilentary bushes at small inlets and washes to surprise their quarry. A 12 pound bird is a big, but tough target. This was easy and fun, I imagine, but it was also a good way to help feed a family as the winter reserves would begin to run dry at this time. This tradition was carried out wholeheartedly until the 1950's when federal game wardens, who now had a presence on Cape Lookout arrested over 20 hunters for loon shooting. As a spat in the face and a bow to tradition, loon hunting still continued at the behest of game wardens.

Loons, though, are indeed unique most divers, they're black and white and with a lot of muted beauty and they do appear spectacular when viewed up close or through binoculars. The eerie call of the loon is noted from here to points as far north as the North Woods of Ontario. The loon is the state bird of Minnesota and the provincial bird of Ontario. They're held in high regard in most places except the Atlantic seaboard where overcrowded and under-educated hunters mistake them often and often curse their appearance. To me, they make a fine live decoy if you allow them to swim with the decoys. Just don't catch one and tether it like the old live decoys. Let them be. Also, they'll keep away eagles, which always make ducks nervous. And for anyone who has ever had a decoy ruined by a swooping eagle, a loon can be the cure.

Either way, learn to identify all ducks in flight and on the water. Then look into loons, cormorants, and grebes. These birds aren't pressured at all, and observation from the duck blind of these feathered weirdos can be interesting and entertaining. Grebes especially, as they dive and rise en mass. Grebes love company, and like all birds they are gregarious. Loons, though are generally solitary until it's breeding time. But then again, everything becomes gregarious at that time...

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