In our own backyard....The gales of November draw nearThere is little as nostalgic as the imminent departure of the loons.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
This time of year always takes on a certain poignancy, as dearly familiar birds begin to head south and animals begin to hibernate.
I left on a trip in early September and returned to discover my hummingbirds, which had been so active the week before, were gone entirely. I suppose when they emptied the last of my feeders, they instinctively went further afield to find nourishment and then began to work their way south for their winter migration. It seemed strange to glance out my kitchen window, or open my eyes in the morning and glance out the bedroom window, and not see the flurry of hummingbird activity.
The Great Blue Heron who glides silently back and forth over our lake in the summertime disappeared just as surreptitiously as he arrived, and the monarch butterflies surrendered to the prevailing air currents after savoring one final magnificent day in early autumn before starting the first leg of their multi- generational trip south.
There is little as nostalgic, however, as the imminent departure of the loons. From the joyful discovery of their return in early spring to the final days of preening and growth of new flight feathers, the loons always give us lake residents something to watch for and enjoy. The loons are almost as much a part of our daily routine each summer as living and breathing, and I look forward to seeing them each time I walk out to the end of dock or pull away from the shore in my kayak or canoe.
This year has been a bit more melancholy than usual, however, because the loon pair didn’t hatch out a chick until mid-July – fully a month later than normal – because they were forced to abandon their first nest when a couple of heedless fisherman anchored too close to the island where the loons were incubating their eggs.
All through the summer, the loon baby was significantly behind the usual growth curve, and it didn’t even start diving until the beginning of October. Not long afterward, one of its parents headed south, and for a couple of weeks after that, the other adult stayed by the young one’s side, feeding it intermittently and (hopefully) teaching it the ropes in time for its imminent migration. I did not notice any “flight lessons,” however, as we did last year, when the young loon would rise above the water and skitter across the surface for a short distance to build up its wings. Likewise, I didn’t hear any “voice lessons,” where the juvenile would attempt to mimic the dramatic calls of its parents.
I realized that since the baby loon was a late bloomer, those things would have to come later – but later meant that much closer to the inevitable day when the wind would turn bitter, snowflakes would begin to whirl through the sky and the ice would begin to freeze around the edges of the lake. Since loons need a significant amount of open water to launch their bulky bodies into the sky, a late chick who cannot yet fly sometimes gets stranded and unable to take off if the ice closes in too far. The very thought of it made my blood run cold.
A couple of weeks ago, on the night of the full moon, I noticed that the adult and baby loons had ceased their usual diving for fish and spent a lot of time swimming around the lake side by side, going this way and that with no particular aim in mind, as though they were experiencing a restless stirring. We were gone over the following weekend, and the next time I got out on the lake I noticed the adult was gone. The young loon had been joined by another juvenile, probably from an adjacent lake, who looked to be more mature then “ours.”
The two swam and fished together for several days until the older one disappeared, apparently headed on its long journey south. I was out in my kayak for the following weekend and didn’t immediately spot the young loon, and I hoped that it, too, had taken off at last before the cold weather sets in for good.
I was halfway across the lake when a pair of eagles lifted off from the crown of a large red pine, and from across the lake I heard the anxious call of the loon – just as its parents had done when the chick was a baby and they feared for its life at the talons of the eagles. I knew then that the youngster had, indeed, learned its lessons well, and that gave me reason for hope.
Now the time draws near for it to fly.