Physics Photo of the Week

September 6, 2013

Loon Take-off - photos by Yamuna Kollalpitiya and Saman Pallewela

We lived among the loons last summer at Willoughby Lake, Vermont, - hearing their eerie calls, their dominance crowing, and their warbling "conversations".  These magnificent birds can swim to substantial depths, fly amazingly fast, and live in both salt water (winter) and fresh water (summer).  Their bones are substantially strong and heavy - in order to dive to great depth - and their wings are rather short for their weight in order to be efficient underwater swimmers.  As a result loons require a long "runway" in order to take flight.  On rare occasions we can get to see - and hear! - the take-off process.  The loon has to run across the water, making great rapid paddling noises, flapping wings to build-up speed.  After about 400 meters (1/4 mile) the loon slowly gains altitude. 

These events are quite rare because loons spend almost all of their time on the open water hunting for fish and generally swimming around - alone or in groups of up to ~7 young adults.  If a loon "lands" on a small pond it is stranded because there is not enough room to take off again.  For more on Loon physiology and photos, see PPOW for Sept. 9, 2011

Physics Photo of the Week is published weekly during the academic year on Fridays by the Warren Wilson College Physics Department. These photos feature interesting phenomena in the world around us.  Students, faculty, and others are invited to submit digital (or film) photographs for publication and explanation. Atmospheric phenomena are especially welcome. Please send any photos to

All photos and discussions are copyright by Donald Collins or by the person credited for the photo and/or discussion.  These photos and discussions may be used for private individual use or educational use.  Any commercial use without written permission of the photoprovider is forbidden.

Click here to see the Physics Photo of the Week Archive.

Observers are invited to submit digital photos to: