Close Encounters: Farewell to a Young Loon
The iced lake pops and groans. Within days, patches of open water ring the shoreline and dark cracks zigzag across the surface. The thin ice appears to turn greenish-black and liquifies: ice-out on Long Lake near Walker. In the distance we hear the tremolo of a loon in flight. Soon one of our loons comes in for a splash landing. Throughout the day it wails occasionally as it tries to contact its mate. Though the pair may winter in separate areas, both loons usually appear within a day of each other. We nervously await the arrival of the second loon, hoping it survived its journey to open water last fall and will make it back to Long Lake this spring.
From opposite ends of the lake, wails echo back and forth. By evening, two loons float in the middle of our narrow lake, appearing black from a distance until they "stand" on the water and shake their feathers, showing their white undersides. With binoculars we can make out the distinctive geometric patterns of their identical male and female breeding plumage. Their soft conversational kwuks carry across the water to us as we watch the sun set. In the days that follow, the two loons carry on their choreographed water-ballet courtship of circling, tucking bills, diving, more circling.
The neighbor's children have built a nesting platform off the shore across the lake. The platform is made of cedar posts and wire mesh, covered with sod and indigenous vegetation, and anchored with cement blocks. The loons build a large nest on the platform in the days following mating.
Now only one loon at a time appears on the lake, so we assume the eggs have been laid and the loons are taking turns on the nest during incubation. The morning of June 9, we once again see two loons on the lake. Using binoculars, we spot a little bump on the back of one loon. The bump splits: two bumps! This is only the second time a pair has been successful in hatching even one chick in the seven years we have lived on Long Lake.
Covered in black down with tiny white breasts, the chicks weigh only a few ounces each. When they leave the parent's back, they try to copy the adult loons, dipping their heads underwater and attempting to submerge. The chicks are too buoyant to stay underwater; one appears to pop to the surface upside down. They try to rise out of the water and shake their wings.
The chicks alternate swimming and riding. The parent swims alongside, submerges low enough for a chick to scramble on, then rises and lifts it clear of the water. The chick rides atop the adult's back or disappears under its wing. While both chicks are riding on one loon, the unencumbered mate drops its head beneath the water, looking for dinner for the chicks. We can barely hear the adults' kwuks as they converse with their family. At first the loons stick close to the chicks, but soon both loons dive and the chicks are alone for a brief time. When a parent surfaces near them, both chicks speed to it.
Eagles hunt the chicks, and they are in danger of being drowned and eaten by gulls that spy them from above. Their white undersides and dangling feet make them easy prey for snapping turtles, pike, and bass. Several days after our first sighting, we are saddened when there is only one chick—the other has disappeared.
Often two eagles are in the vicinity, sitting in treetops along the shore or winging overhead, swooping low over the loons. Many times each day the adult loons become agitated, drawing our attention with their frantic warning calls. We watch an eagle swoop low over them, and several times we feel sure the chick has been captured, only to see it reappear with its parents some time later.
Summer passes as the surviving chick grows into a juvenile. It is often alone now; the parents seem to have lost interest in it. The days begin to shorten, the leaves turn butter color and then carpet the woods. The adult loons leave for their wintering home. They do not look back to see their offspring growing smaller in the distance.
Alone on Long Lake after its parents depart, the juvenile loon in its gray plumage must fish, eat, and grow strong enough to lift its body with its solid bones from the water into the air. It will need as much as a quarter of a mile of open water over which to race with furiously beating wings to become airborne. Our young loon must make its own flight in the next few weeks, while there is still open water.
Unusually warm weather stretches fall into winter. Up and down the lake, the juvenile loon swims. Neighbors have seen it speed about 100 feet along the water, try to lift off, and fail.
"Do his wings look awfully small to you?"
"Do you think he realizes he needs to leave?"
Water along the shore freezes, framing the lake. An ice film forms over the surface of half of the lake, leaving open water in the middle.
"I think he made it."
"I'm sure he did."
In fading November, an eagle lands on the frozen lake. We are entranced as the eagle does a dance with its image in the ice, opening its large wings halfway and lifting its feet in slow quarter-turn jumps in a circle, at times bending its white head to the ice. It has fallen in love with its own reflection. Nonromantics speculate the eagle sees a fish under the ice.
Often now, two large eagles soar in the sky. As they land on the ice their feet skid, but their tail feathers seem to keep them upright. The two eagles stand on the ice for hours, one several feet behind the other, immobile, attention fixed on the open water.
Dec. 17 our neighbor phones and says he can see our loon in the open water.
"No!" I cry.
We wade through snow to the shoreline where we see it swimming in the middle of the narrow lake. A great sadness comes over us.
Each day the open water shrinks until the loon swims in a hole about 10 feet in diameter. It dives into this hole, fishing for food, and resurfaces there. Two, and sometimes three, eagles circle overhead or sit immobile on the ice. The hole is visible to us from the far north window of our house.
I call a couple of DNR offices, but they do not attempt loon rescues from iced lakes. It is too dangerous. Also, they have no facilities to rehabilitate water birds. Perhaps the loon has an injury that prevents it from flying or does not have the instinct to know it must leave.
The weekend brings wind chills of minus 50 degrees. Under my comforter I shiver, unable to sleep, thinking of the loon in the shrinking lake and dreading the time when we will see the bird iced in completely. In the morning's cold light, the loon swims in an even smaller hole. Outdoors its faint calls can be heard. Even as we do not want to look, our eyes are drawn to the dark spot of open water on the snow-covered ice.
On Dec. 22, an eagle perches on either side of the small patch of open water. When one lifts off to prepare to attack the loon, the loon dives underwater. It surfaces, only to dive again when the other eagle lifts off. It is expending tremendous energy and cannot find food under these circumstances. It has to be weakening.
Late that night I sit in the dark wrapped in a blanket at the window. Across the lake a cabin's night light is visible through bare limbs and tree trunks. The snow cover on the frozen water catches light from the sky and tosses it back. With tear-blurred eyes, I strain to see a distant small, dark bruise of open water on the snow.
On the morning of Dec. 23, there is no black hole of open water: The lake is completely frozen over. Our loon sits on the ice. It is alert and looking around, turning its head and periodically tucking it under a wing. Pushing its body forward a few inches on the ice with its feet, flapping its wings, the loon makes one last futile attempt to move.
About 10:45 a.m. an eagle attacks. It spends hours at the spot. One after the other, two more eagles take their turn. By day's end, the snow-covered lake is deserted.
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