Tuesday, May 21, 2013

What I Will Miss (4) - The Call of the Loon

I wrote this post on May 4th, but didn't finish it up until tonight. The ice came off our lake on May 10th, by far the latest it has ever come off our lake. 

This is the latest spring on record here in the north. I guess that means that it is also the longest winter.  One cheery soul pointed out that it is only seven weeks until the days start getting shorter again. The late spring has messed up the normal timing of events around here. Next weekend is the fishing opener, but the lakes are still covered with thick ice and there were snow flurries today. The girls were wearing snowmobile boots under their prom dresses and trying to figure out what hairstyle would not be ruined by a stocking cap.

The birds have been late in arriving. Birders a few hundred miles south of here have been commenting on the unusual number of robins covering their yards. They are stacked up like planes at O'Hare waiting for the weather to clear so that can resume their flights north. We've seen a few flocks recently, but it wasn't until last week's warmer weather that we saw them in any abundance.

This morning that I heard my favorite sound of the north country. A loon flew over our house calling out as it searched for open water. The only open water around here right now is at the end of Lawrence Lake, where it empties into the Prairie River. Dozens of loons have been gathered there for a couple of weeks waiting, like the rest of us, for the thawing of the ice.

Loon with baby.
Soon they will be back in their nesting areas. There nests are built right at the water's edge because the loon is terribly inept on dry ground. They normally hatch two youngsters and will spend the next several months caring for them. In addition to the safe nesting site, the loons will utilize a "nursery". This is usually a quiet bay that ideally is clear enough for fishing, but also shallow enough to limit the size of the fish likely to prey on the youngsters. For the first week of their lives, the baby loons will spend a little over half their time riding on the backs of their parents in order to avoid being eaten by large fish. By the time they are eight weeks old, the young will be catching all of their own food.

They are completely at home in the water. They can quickly dive under the surface or slowly sink like a submarine. Once underwater, they can dive up to 200 feet in search of fish and can stay under for an amazing length of time. I have timed them staying under water for almost two minutes. To watch them swim under your canoe is an amazing experience. Their speed is incredible.

My fascination with loons started when I was a boy on a fishing trip with my dad. We had driven up into the north country in search of "whatever is biting". I remember sitting in our small boat when suddenly these two birds started chasing each other up and down the lake. Their wings were flapping, but it looked like they were running on top of the water. The show lasted for a good ten minutes and it sounded like they were laughing the entire time. (I found a video of something similar). "What are those, dad?" I remember asking. He chuckled, "Did you ever hear the expression 'Crazy as a loon?' Now you know where it comes from. Those are loons." I fell asleep that night listening to their calls echo across the lake.

But they don't just laugh. On misty foggy days when the cedars are dripping constantly and the smell of the moist forest floor fills the air, the wail of the loon can be heard. It is a lonely prehistoric sound entirely fitting the scene. Like a distant foghorn the loon calls looking for its mate. In the distance the reply will be heard. It is unmistakably the sound of the border country.

Over the last fourteen years we have been fortunate to live on Snaptail Lake. This northern Minnesota lake is home to a pair of loons that we watch all summer long. We see them swim past every morning and listen to their calls as we climb into bed at night. What the call of the meadowlark is to the Great Plains, the sound of the loon is to the North Country. It is a symbol. When I lived in the city it was an invitation to a simpler life. It has become the sound of home.

And I will miss it.  

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