From tip to tip, the Common Loon, or "Great Northern Diver," is perfectly
equipped for underwater fishing. Photo by Steve Huggins
Looney times in Lake County

(published 4-28-22)

This column has a soundtrack, and you might know the one. Imagine yourself in the North Woods, on a summer night, next to clear, quiet lake. Now listen for the haunting calls of a common loon, piercing the darkness. That’s it, that’s what I’m hearing.

Recently I was thrilled to hear those same yodels and wails just 50 miles from my Glen Ellyn doorstep. I was in Lake County for my first Loonapaloonza.

Yes, it’s a thing, searching for common loons on the county’s vast network of inland lakes. Late March and early April are best, when loons stop here on their way to northern breeding grounds. Large lakes in neighboring counties may host a loon or two, but the Chain O’Lakes region is the migration epicenter for Northeast Illinois. 

Even fluky April snow showers couldn’t erase the Loon Ranger’s
 smile. David Johnson’s fascination with loons began 50 years
 ago. “They are the first birds in my old field guides, and they
 have a lot of magic about them,” he said.

David B. Johnson, from Buffalo Grove, knows all the best places to look. He’s been leading loon tours since 1997, for the both the Evanston North Shore Bird Club and the Illinois Ornithological Society (IOS). David conjured up Loonapaloonza, an annual IOS event, in 2016—yet another way to share his passion for loons with others.

“I’m addicted to loon watching,” David admits. It started in the early 1970s when he was nature director at Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan Scout Reservation in northern Wisconsin. Hearing the loons on moonlit nights from his tent cabin next to Spring Lake hooked him for life.

My day with the Loon Ranger and seven other birders began at Illinois Beach State Park in Zion, followed by stop just north at Winthrop Harbor. In both places, we scanned Lake Michigan for red-throated loon, a rare species in these parts. We didn’t see any, but it was worth a shot.

Two days before, David surveyed 25 lakes on a full-day binge with fellow loonatic Karen Lund. They tallied 505 common loons across Lake and McHenry Counties, the third-highest total ever for their annual Chain O’Lakes Spring Loon Count. As our car caravan headed west toward Antioch, we felt confident that excellent looning was ahead.

Red eyes, distinctive feathering and eerie vocalizations add to the
common loon’s charm. The species is not closely related to
mallards and other ducks. Photo by Steve Huggins

Well, almost excellent. Mother Nature threw us an early-April curve, delivering rain, sleet, and eventually heavy snow flurries. The weather was manageable but more challenging with each passing hour.

Our first stop, Channel Lake, yielded 65 common loons and more than 200 American white pelicans. The birds were scattered throughout the lake and some, especially pelicans, were close to shore. Most of the loons were farther out so David’s Leica spotting scope was essential for viewing our red-eyed quarry up close. The Loon Ranger is always prepared.

Moving on to other lakes, our success declined in proportion to the visibility. We just couldn’t see much through the snow and fog. But now and again we’d hear those magical calls of the wild.

David’s trained ears can distinguish the four basic loon calls: hoot, tremolo, wail and yodel. The last two are classics—sounds we know from summer vacations up north, and from Hollywood movie soundtracks.

The looney projections seemed especially haunting during our stop at Fox Lake, next to the shuttered Mineola Hotel. Built in 1884, the landmark looks ideal for a horror movie, or at least a Scooby Doo episode. As we surveyed the foggy lake, the creepy hotel hovered behind us like a giant gray ghost.

The small but hardy 2022 Loonapaloonza team was joined by a wooden friend.

We’d just come from another point on Fox Lake, Columbia Bay, where we took the official 2022 Loonapaloonza group photo in a snow squall. For a prop, I retrieved a common loon decoy I’d brought along from home—a fitting mascot for the day, carved and painted by my late father. Young birders Harper and Harrison held it proudly in the front row.

The decoy joined us for lunch at Looney’s Pub in Antioch, resting amid our coffee cups. The server, Stacy, got a kick out of it—or maybe it was the clientele. The burgers were first rate—a Bleu Loon for me and a Looney Burger for David, which I suspect he’d ordered before. The pub is a traditional stop on his annual tour.

It was tempting to call it a day after lunch, but three of us pressed on. East and West Loon Lakes were just down the road, where we heard loons calling through the snowfall. One performed a beachfront fly-by, its heavy body pulling large, paddled feet.

Soon the Chain O’Lakes visitors will be off to their summer homes in northern Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Canada. But for a few weeks every spring, what a joy (and opportunity) it is to see and hear them in Illinois. I fully understand the Loon Ranger’s fascination with the species.

Happily, the common loon population is stable or increasing. For more information, including a migratory range map and amazing loon facts, check out the All About Birds website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Copyright 2022 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.