When the fates conspired to create the beautiful, eerie loon, they put the feet too far back. As a result, loons fly like the wind and swim like fish, but for walking, "All they can manage is a sort of goofy hop," said Dan Bystrak, a bird-bander.
Which is how at least nine loons came to be stranded in a variety of dangerous suburban Maryland places Wednesday evening, including the asphalt at Langley Park shopping center, a swimming pool in Bethesda, a ramp off I-270 and a runway at College Park Airport.
The nine loons, eight common and one red-throated, were rescued by humans and this afternoon were released, evidently unharmed, into the Chesapeake Bay at Sandy Point State Park.
The migrating loons evidently mistook water-covered surfaces for bodies of water as they sought refuge in a wild rain and wind strom around dusk Wednesday, said Bystrak, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Once on the ground, he said, their inability to run rendered them unable to regain the air, and they were stuck.
Loons and their close kin, grebes, can get airborne off water, but even that takes great effort and is comical to watch.They puch frantically with their stern-mounted feet, lift their bosoms clear and flap like mad into the wind for up to 100 yards, during which time a loon looks a bit like a jet-powered bowling ball crashing through the surf.
On land, where the rescuers found them, they are almost helpless.
"Well, they can peck you," said Montgomery County Wildlife Director Kermit Williams, who rescued five of them.
The loons Williams rescued and four others were brought in through the night to the Chesapeake Bird and Wildlife Sanctuary in Bowie, the only licensed wildlife rehabilitation center in the state. After being banded today by Bystrak for tracking purposes, the birds were driven to the bay.
Dianne Pearce, the sanctuary director, said most of the birds had scrapes and bruises from their abrupt landings, mostly on their feet, which bled profusely. She and sanctuary worker John Vincent staunched the bleeding, then packed the birds into cardboard and wooden boxes, from which characteristic loon cries (a piercing, falsetto "whooooooo") emerged through the night.
A few visitors stopped by to see loons, which are not rare but are infrequently seen away from big bodies of water."I'm a loon nut," said Dorothy Newhouse of Bowie. "We spend time at Loon Mountain in New Hampshire, but no one ever sees one up there. I had to come back to Bowie to see one."
Bystrak said loons are fairly common on the Eastern seaboard, but have been placed on a U.S. list of "species of special concern." He said naturalists are worried by an epidemic of dying loons that occurred on the Florida Gulf Coast and about continued development for human use of northern lakes, where loons nest in summer. Of loons' relations with man, he said, "They're better off without him."
About 3 p.m., as an Arctic northwester churned the bay to froth, Pearce, Vincent and some helpers began releasing them into the protected waters near the boat ramp at Sandy Point. Some swam off, their buff-colored necks forming an elegant S as they sped along; others dove, to the delight of observers.
Then they regrouped and headed for the inlet and the big water beyond.