Mar 19, 2024

Loons: Call of the North

Here a mother loon sits upon her nest, a little nervous over our close approach. Loons are common in northern waters, but seldom seen as far south as Pennsylvania. Their black and white color pattern is striking but it’s their eerie wail echoing across the waters at dawn and dusk that strikes deep into the soul of mankind.

The orange-red sun touched the Western horizon, a glowing furnace setting the clouds alight in a scarlet grow, the white flecked clouds afire, deep cobalt blue streaks interspersed, creating a sunset of spectacular beauty. The lake waters gleamed as if ablaze, their calm surface seemingly burning as they mirrored the spectacular sky. Close at hand, etched against the sky, towered tall white pines, their black silhouettes clear, sharp and beautiful, giving contrast and detail to the glowing sunset behind. To the west a quarter moon gleamed, white in the darkening sky.

Such beauty took my breath away. It seemed too extravagant to be real, too stunning to be possible. We simply sat silently and watched, reluctant that it all should end so quickly, yet eager to witness the final stages of the sunset.

The brilliant sun disappeared behind the far horizon, the sky gleamed in even richer colors, then began to fade, the scarlet turning to red, then a delicate rose, the cobalt blue to a rich navy, then slowly to a pure pastel azure. The clouds reflected the color changes, then slowly faded to gray, their edges flecked with the colors surrounding them. The sky grew darker, the colors washed out until at last only a faint golden glow showed, glimmered briefly and vanished.

The lake waters gleamed silver as the shore line darkened into a solid mass. A great peace settled all around us as if the very Earth itself held its breath at the beauty it had witnessed.

Then, when I thought nothing could complete such a scene, a loon called. Only God could create such an enchanting, supernatural sound, for its cry stirs our souls as no other sound could. It transfixed me to the chair, the eerie wail rising, rising then in tremolo dying away. It was magical, enchanting and yet haunting all at once. As the cry echoed across the lake another answered, then faintly, from afar another.

How can I describe its effect? First, it’s a cry of solitude. It speaks of vast wilderness, unexplored regions where man’s foot has never trod and loneliness haunts the heart. That cry hints of black shadows roaming around our campfire where we sit trembling, wondering what unseen eyes are watching with evil intent. A cry echoing, revealing all our fears and insecurities, a cry piercing our very souls, making us so aware of our mortality.

Second, almost in opposition to the first, is its beauty. The eerie cry is so appropriate to the grandeur of the lake, the majesty of the trees surrounding it, the spellbinding, calming effect bodies of water have upon us. Our heart is touched, an essence distilled upon our psyches, a deeper part of us moved in a way so appropriate to our surroundings. Is it the cry of the loon or is the lake speaking to us?

Third, are the thoughts and emotions it stirs. The cry is so pure, so true to its purpose that our innermost being is affected. Things hidden, perhaps buried or ignored may float up, for the loon calls to our conscience if need be.

Yes, a cry troubling, moving, evocative, melancholy and lingering. Yet it is also soothing, calming, comforting and beautiful. Wherever your heart is, the loon’s cry will find it in a way unique to itself.

The bird itself is interesting. Loons are larger than most ducks, yet smaller than a goose. They have plump bodies with a white belly and rather short wings. Male and female loons have identical plumage consisting of various patterns of black and white. A solid black head with a very red or ruby eye, vertical white strips on a large neck band and white spotted, black wings with spear shaped bills.

Loons hunt underwater. Their webbed feet are set far back on their body allowing them to swim rapidly. I’ve witnessed loons using their wings as well while under the surface. Loons can remain underwater for up to five minutes and swim as far as 100 yards. Usually, they stay in a smaller area where they’ve discovered a tasty school of minnows. Though they are able to walk on land, rather awkwardly, they remain exclusively on the water except to breed or nest. Because of their shorter wings, loons find it necessary to dash across the water, upwind, if possible, to become airborne.

A rather interesting fact is that young loons molt into a second coat of thick down instead of growing juvenile feathers as is typical in so many other species of birds. The young also enjoy climbing onto mom’s back and hitching a nice warm, safe ride for a prowling pike may be nearby.

When the northern freshwater lakes freeze over, loons migrate to southern marine coastlines. They are superbly adapted to the change from freshwater to saltwater having special salt glands located directly above their eyes. These glands filter out excess salt from their bloodstream and flushes it through their nasal passages. This allows a loon to eat salt water fish and drink salt water to quench its thirst immediately upon arriving at the ocean.

A fascinating bird, but most of all, the loons’ eerie, undulating, drawn-out, wailing cry represents the soul of a spiritual plane no other sound can carry us to, a world both magical and thought provoking.

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