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In Our Own Backyard....A mother's instinct runs strong

With the first paddle stroke, I exhaled a long breath and felt myself begin to relax into the rhythm of the lake. It had been far too long since I'd been out there, and I needed the mindless energy of the paddle to bring me back into the flow of ...

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With the first paddle stroke, I exhaled a long breath and felt myself begin to relax into the rhythm of the lake. It had been far too long since I'd been out there, and I needed the mindless energy of the paddle to bring me back into the flow of the natural world that we are lucky enough to call our back yard.

As I propelled my kayak through the glassy water, I thought of how many weekends I'd missed paddling the lake this fall after either being out of town or hosting company. Autumn is one of my favorite seasons on our small lake. The summer people are gone, along with their wake boats and jet skis and boundless determination to cram a week's worth of water sports into a Saturday afternoon. The changing colors of the leaves reflected on the surface of the water make for great photo opportunities, along with the animals, insects and waterfowl that are restlessly on the move in response to the beckoning of the season.

The last time I was out on the lake, the early autumn sunshine had brought out turtles who were sitting on deadheads just above the surface of the water, soaking in the last fading warmth of the season. The dragonflies and damselflies were skittering over the surface of the lily pads, coming to rest only briefly before darting off once again.

The loon pair, who had twice tried unsuccessfully to hatch out chicks, was floating about in tandem, pulling out their feathers to make room for their flight feathers and diving frequently to catch fish to bolster their energy for their long flight south. It had been a tough summer for the loons. The downpours of Memorial Day weekend and the late June flooding had swept their eggs from the shallow nest on the end of the island, and ever since early July they have been floating around listlessly, with no parental duties to keep them vigilant.

Without any loon babies to pursue, the eagles had not been as animated as usual this summer either. Normally the loons launch into a chorus of distressed tremolos when an eagle soars overhead, fearing that their baby is at risk. This summer, the loon calls seemed to be fewer and further between and limited largely to social interaction.

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I was anxious to see what, if any, signs of wildlife and waterfowl were still active on the lake as I set out last Sunday. For the most part, the leaves were gone from the trees but the water was so clear I could see all the way to the bottom of the lake. It was like gazing down into an aquarium.

About halfway across the lake, I raised my eyes to search the branches of the giant dead tree that leans out over the water and is a favorite perch of the eagles. There were no birds in sight, and so I moved on.

I could make out the silhouette of a dark bird floating on the water's surface at the far end of the lake. As I paddled further, I discovered it was a single loon. I was surprised, since normally the adult loons have left far earlier than this, often within a few days of each other or sometimes with a group of other loons who land on the lake for a day and then all take to the sky. It's normally only the baby loon that is left to its own devices at this point in the fall as it builds up its wing strength in hopes of learning to fly before the water begins to freeze. For an adult to remain in late October seemed unusual, and for some unexplained reason I assumed it must be the female.

Perhaps she stayed on longer because the fish in the lake were still plentiful without chicks feeding alongside the adults all summer. Perhaps she lacked the motivation to get up and go since the weather was still unusually mild. Perhaps she was reluctant to leave, since her motherhood role had gone unfulfilled over the summer. In any case, I stopped paddling and simply floated there, enjoying this unexpected second chance at loon watching.

She spent a lot of time plucking at her feathers, diving from time to time to snag a fish, and every once in a while she would rise above the water and flap her wings mightily, as if flying in place. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, the pair of eagles appeared overhead, soaring on an unseen air current with their wings set majestically as they cruised in wide circles.

Almost as unexpectedly, the loon emitted that chilling tremolo call so familiar during the summer months when the parents are guarding their baby. I was startled, but not surprised - because after all, I thought to myself, that's just what mothers do.

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