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In Our Own Backyard....Defend what's yours

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A couple of weeks ago our son-in-law, an amateur triathlete, decided to swim across our lake. It's something he's done several times before while visiting us in the summer, so none of us thought much about it when he headed down to the lake garbed in his swim trunks and water goggles.

About 10 minutes later he was back again, eyes as round as saucers and tale to tell.

It seems that as he headed out across the lake, he made a conscious decision to veer away from the small island where he knew the loons were sitting on their nest. The loon pair has remained childless (or should I say "chickless"?) for the past two years, and everyone on the lake was rooting for them this year when they began sitting on their clutch of eggs. Our hearty swimmer was only about 100 yards off our dock and slicing along through the water when he was startled by a tremendous commotion atop the water just to the right of him. When he turned his head in that direction mid-stride, he looked right into the outraged red eyes of a loon! He said the bird raised up on the water with a furious beating of wings, emitted a chorus of wild cries and then charged at him. And since he found himself right at eye-level with the angry bird, he decided he wasn't going to trust to fate that the loon wouldn't actually charge him.

The way he related it later, he said the loon kept coming and coming at him, screaming frantically. He slapped the water with one hand and said something like, "I'm just swimming here, loon!" but the bird wasn't to be deterred. Deciding to err on the side of caution (and with more than a hint of sheer terror), he immediately switched gears and headed back to the dock.

In the meantime, the rest of us had heard the loon's wild cries all the way up at the house and off-handedly wondered if the eagle was making his daily foray across the lake, or perhaps a jet skier had zoomed too close to the nest. When our son-in-law arrived back at the house and related his tale of woe, we began to understand what caused the loon to make such a commotion. We just didn't understand why.

I kept mulling it over and over again in my mind. It just didn't make sense why the loon would attack a swimmer, when there are swimmers all around the lake. And why was the loon down in our end of the lake defending its turf when its mate was sitting atop the nest in the other end? After much speculation, I finally decided I had the answer….

Our son-in-law and his family left the next day, so I decided to slip down to the lake after work and take a little paddle around the bay to see what I could discover. At first, I saw nothing — no familiar dark black dot on the horizon that marked the loon's silhouette atop the water, no swimmers or boaters stirring things up, no tyrannical zombie fluttering along the surface of the water in full war cry.

And then, far to my left, I spotted one of the loons in the curve of the bay, working its way along the shoreline. I set the bow of my kayak in the direction of the loon and paddled slowly and quietly toward it, not wanting to upset it or disturb it in any way. I intentionally gave it a wide berth, content to view it through the long lens of my camera instead of getting too close.

I stopped paddling and floated silently atop the surface of the lake, searching out the loon in my lens and then focusing in on it as best I could. And then, my suspicions were confirmed.

What at first looked like a slightly amorphous blob finally came into focus as an adult loon with two tiny chicks on its back! They were all peach fuzz, big eyes and pointed beaks as they snuggled there atop the broad back between their mother's wings.

Though I was certain she was aware of my presence, she seemed cool, calm and collected, paddling slowly along as the babies napped. Halfway across the lake, however, I spotted the sentinel. He, too, seemed fairly nonplussed by my presence, but I was fully aware that if I moved in too close to his new little family, he would cause a terrible ruckus.

I couldn't help but grin in approval. After all, these wonderful birds had waited three years to have a family once again, and there was simply no way that they were going to let anything, or anybody, come between them!