“Duck! Quack quack!” My toddler granddaughter grabbed the stuffed loon from the back of our family room couch.
“It’s a loon. Can you say loon?” her mother gently corrected and flashed a smile my way. “You’d better know the difference or your grandparents will disinherit you.”
My home is full of loons, reflecting the love my husband, Julian, and I share for the water birds that summer on northern lakes. My grandchildren once attempted to count the loons in our house—stuffed, carved, molded, painted, printed—and gave up at something over two hundred.
We first encountered a loon in Canada’s Algonquin Provincial Park. As our canoe cut through the water, a large water bird popped up from the depths and approached us. For a tense moment, it looked as if it would thrust its spear-like bill into our boat’s aluminum side. We stopped paddling and held our breaths. Apparently the loon decided that we were not a threat. We watched it dive under the canoe and swim away, its black-and-white-checkered back visible through the crystalline water.
A few summers later, we were canoeing on a narrow section of a New England reservoir, seeking the inlet that fed it. Julian spotted a loon to our right, near the shoreline. We drifted, waiting to see what it would do. It dove, then came up fifteen or twenty yards behind us. We turned in response to its hoot. It stood up and spread its wings as if to beckon us. Curious, we moved toward it. Each time we approached, it dove again and emerged farther and farther from its starting point. When it had led us out of the cove, presumably away from its chicks, the loon disappeared, and we explored a different section of the lake.
At home, we began to read about loons. In addition to finding their beauty irresistible, we liked the idea that they inhabit the out-of-the-way areas we love most. We also liked the fact that they apparently mate for life and return to the same nesting spot spring after spring. As youthful parents ourselves, we related to their fierce protection of their young.
One July we encountered a late nester, a loon that had apparently lost her first egg during the month-long incubation period and had produced another. We had chosen South Pond for a day’s outing because we could count on spotting a loon or two. As lunchtime approached, we were disappointed: a morning of pleasant paddling amid attractive scenery, but no loons. We stepped out onto a tiny island to stretch our legs and enjoy our picnic, and there it was: Mama (or maybe Papa—they take turns protecting their egg) sitting on a mess of grass and other vegetation, partially hidden in the stalks of the even smaller adjacent islet. We stifled our excitement so as not to disturb her, but she seemed unperturbed by our presence. She maintained her perch without so much as riffling a feather while we unwrapped and ate our sandwiches. Later, from the canoe, we got an even closer view of her red eyes and black and white finery along with a glimpse of an olive brown egg. As we paddled off, thrilled to have seen our first nesting loon, we wished her well, hoping that her “late bloomer” would hatch, grow, and return to enjoy many summers in upstate New York.
Our Adirondack base is a resort on sixteen-mile long Indian Lake. The numerous islands, coves, and bays offer many hide-and-seek opportunities to see loons—or to miss them. Their distinctive coloring is perfect camouflage on a lake streaked with sunlit ripples. As we paddle, we search eagerly for the black dot that may turn out to be a loon. We glide toward it, hoping to draw close enough to see its shape and coloration. If it never moves, it usually proves to be a stick or rock. But if it disappears suddenly, chances are it’s a loon. With more solid bones than most birds, it submerges effortlessly after expelling the air from its body and compressing its dense, waterproof plumage. On the surface, we sit in our canoe, try to look in all directions at once, and hope that our quarry will reemerge within our visual range. The ninety seconds of a loon’s average dive seem endless to this loon lover.
One afternoon, as we paddled close to shore at the narrow end of Johnny Mack Bay, a loon swam to the middle of the passage. She rose up, flared her wings, and called in the long, drawn-out wail that is usually reserved for night chorusing. It sounded for all the world as if she were calling, “Hoooney, where are you? I neeeed you.” Soon, from far out in the lake came a faint reply, “I’m cooooooooming…” We waited, entranced, as the loon flared and called again, this time sounding more frantic. “Hurry up. You’re never here when I need you. Swim faster!” And then, from closer, “I’m on my way.” After a final sharp call from the nearby loon, her mate appeared at her side. Together the pair swam to the lake’s edge, helped two chicks hidden in the shoreline brush onto their backs, and ferried them across the cove to safety.
I’m not sure why I am tempted to anthropomorphize loons; perhaps because I enjoy them so much that I want them to be human, perhaps because I can relate to them more easily that way. One evening, I stood on the deck outside the resort’s dining porch, chatting with friends. Below us, a loon trio moved slowly past the swimming dock. First, one dipped its head into the water, no doubt spearing a passing minnow. Minutes after, the second loon dunked down to grab a snack, and later the third. From my vantage point it looked like a cocktail party at which loons chit-chat, pause to snag a passing hors d’oeuvre, then resume the conversation.
Loons are reputed to be curious. Julian and I saw this one summer at a small, horseshoe-shaped pond. After an hour’s paddle, we had beached our craft and hiked past beaver meadows and along a creek to an old logging road. We had seen loons before at Crockett’s Pond, but none were in sight this day. My husband gave his best loon call. To our astonished delight, a loon appeared. While Julian continued to warble his version of the tremolo, we had a perfect view of the black and white beauty that swam back and forth, apparently curious about this bird with the funny accent.
Another summer Julian lured me away from my comfortable bed at the resort to camp overnight at Little Tupper Lake, a wilderness area that New York State had recently opened to the public. We occupied the sole island campsite at the far end of the skinny lake. After our one-pot dinner, I sat on a boulder at lake’s edge. As the sky darkened, I watched loons swimming to and fro, calling to each other in short, cooing hoots. Mesmerized, I gazed until their black and white bodies disappeared into the night. And even then, I was too lost in the loon experience to move.
Something about loons touches the center of my being. My heart races when I see a distant black head, when I’m only hoping that it’s a loon. When I’m close enough to make out its shape, its plumage, to see it dive, or better yet to see it flare, I experience a deep satisfaction. I tell people that “Any day you see a loon is a good day,” and I believe this to the depths of my soul. The corollary, of course, is that any night you hear a loon chorus is a good night. To lie in my lakeside cabin listening to a haunting loon serenade is the prelude to a satisfying night’s sleep.
One morning, as I pulled myself from my toasty bed for an early paddle, I heard a loon call. I felt a smile burst onto my face. I dressed quietly, not wanting to disturb Julian, and walked through the whispering trees to my solo canoe. I paddled across gently rippling Indian Lake toward Long Island, debating whether I was more likely to spot a loon behind the island or up the narrow fork where, six miles upstream, the Jessup River wends its way through a rocky jungle into the lake.
I paused, considering. Behind me, a bright yellow orb barely topped the low-lying mountains. Overhead, the sky was turning blue. Suddenly, two loons popped up in front of me. I drifted, watching intently. First, one ducked its head into the water, then the other, like kids bobbing for apples. Seconds later they dove, apparently seeking a heartier breakfast. I spun my canoe, scanning to see where they would reemerge. I spotted one black head before it dove again. I waited another minute or two, then paddled on. I no longer cared where. I had seen two loons before breakfast.