I awoke to a rumpus of loons, two of them in full-throated tremolo down on Secret Lake. Minutes later, I hustled down the path to the water and confirmed what it meant.
Their nest, on the other side of the 13-acre lake, was vacant. I trained binoculars on the adults. Where was the hatchling? Surely that’s what the ruckus was about. I studied the backs of the loons, and in a moment spotted it: a midget featherball with a tiny head, riding atop one of the adults. Wait — a second chick bobbing between the parents? Sunlight glinted off ripples, and the loons were in a constant swirl. I saw it, then didn’t. Or did I? For several minutes I peered through the lenses, unsure, then resolved the matter via canoe.
I flipped it over, shoved off, and allowing the family a wide berth, paddled to the nest. There, shards of a single egg. I’d been wishing a second chick into being. Why not? Nurturing a baby loon to maturity is a formidable task, and the more offspring the better. In 2006, two chicks hatched from that nest, and seven days later one vanished. There are impressive snapping turtles in Secret Lake, and my guess had the little loon snatched from below. A neighbor on another lake saw a bald eagle pluck a chick from the water. Eagles orbit here, too. Larger fish, and even gulls, are a threat.
During the past three decades, loon chicks have hatched four times on Secret Lake, a total of six individuals. None has survived. One year, a chick expired inside a partly opened egg, and its sibling disappeared a few days after entering the water. The second of the pair from 2006, which hatched on June 22, was resident on the lake until Sept. 2, and then no more. It’s unlikely it flew away at 10 weeks of age. Juveniles may attempt to fly after eight weeks, practicing those long, water-slapping takeoffs, but are unable to attain the sky until they’re 11 to 13 weeks old. Besides, it’s not just about flight.
This newest chick hatched on July 8, and that’s distressingly tardy. Our long winter and delayed spring displaced phenomena from their typical time frames. Had a first nesting failed? I’d seen no evidence, though the adults could have tried elsewhere before settling on Secret. At a lake a few miles away, I’d noticed chicks in late June.
My dread: that this little one, who I arbitrarily decided was female, wouldn’t have time to mature before ice returned in November, and that she’d die, trapped in her birthplace. A Minnesota Department of Natural Resources specialist told me in an e-mail: “I would be more concerned about the chick being on the short end of becoming independent [by the time] the parents will probably leave, and the chick usually spends several weeks [thereafter] feeding and building up reserves for migration. This chick may not have enough time to do that before the lake freezes.” And since Secret is small, it locks up early.
Several autumns ago, a friend on a much larger lake watched helplessly as a juvenile loon was gradually hemmed in by ice. He phoned wildlife professionals for assistance, but the advice was to “let nature take its course.” Which it did.
What adds poignancy to these dramas is that loons can live for 30 years, and that it’s possible the pair of adults are the individuals, or a mix of the individuals, I’ve been watching and listening to for many seasons.
They returned on April 27 last year. I keep a bench at the rim of the lake, and a half-hour before sunset, Oscar and I loitered there, alert. It was a familiar pattern. When I eased onto the bench, the pair were a hundred yards out, but immediately began to approach, meandering and diving. Oscar wagged his tail. Every time they surfaced, they were several yards nearer, but made no sound.
Like many Minnesotans, I’m hopelessly sentimental about loons, so I broke the silence. “Hello, loons!” I called. Soon they were only 50 feet away and preening. “Welcome back,” I said, freshly enchanted by this congenial ritual. I don’t know why they approach, clearly unafraid, but it does seem like a greeting, a polite spring encounter with snowbird neighbors. As usual, they casually drifted away after a few minutes, fading into far silhouettes at dusk. “Goodnight, loons.” I wondered if they’d nest here, and they did, or at least someone did.
Was the latest Secret Lake chick doomed? If she survived the summer, her fate would hinge on autumn weather. I assigned myself to watch. Every morning, and two or three times during the day, I packed binoculars to the lake. Was the chick still there? How big was she?
Early on July 14 I didn’t see her, and she was almost surely too young to be diving. Nor did I see her that afternoon. I was concerned, but understood from past watches that if the featherball was up against the far shore of moss and leatherleaf, she’d be invisible. An adult was still around, and that was a favorable sign. In previous years, when the last little one disappeared, so did the adults. A reflection snagged my eye, and I was both amused and disconcerted to note a large snapping turtle catching rays atop the old loon nest.
I returned at dusk, but still didn’t spot the chick. Next morning, I saw her immediately and was relieved and delighted.
By Aug. 1, the hatchling was about half size, and two weeks later looked almost fully grown when seen in isolation from a distance. On her 40th morning I was worried to see no loons, and was about to descend into a funk when the juvenile surfaced 50 yards out. An adult popped up a moment later. The youngster had learned to dive, and did so many times over the next 20 minutes.
But mom and/or dad were still feeding her — constantly. I witnessed the passing of small fish plus many wrigglers I assumed to be leeches. I see a lot of leopard frogs along the shore, and loons will eat them, too. One summer, when a young loon was on the lake, my partner, Pam, returned from a local bait shop with several dozen minnows and dumped them in the water, hoping to help the baby.
On Aug. 22 — day 45 — I couldn’t find the youngster. I saw her in the morning, but in late afternoon, no sign, nor any trace of an adult. The sky was overcast, the air murky, but the lake was dead-calm. I glassed the surface and shoreline, straining to spot a V in the water, a flash of white, or the familiar shape. There was a pied-billed grebe swimming in the middle, and usually I’d be tickled by that. But I felt irrational resentment toward the visitor, aching to see the loon instead. After a half-hour of searching, it seemed nearly certain that Secret Lake had failed again as a nursery, but I held out hope for morning — more light at a better angle.
Twelve hours later, conditions were indeed better but the result the same. No loons. All gone. The funk descended; I couldn’t help it.
Have you noticed how often the voice of loons appears on movie soundtracks? Only last week, during a film set in a Vietnamese jungle, I heard it. Apparently loon song has become a clichéd call of the wild, whether it’s a Canadian shield lake or a tropical rain forest. And what commonly happens in the wild is death, as grimly noted by Tennyson: “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” In that regard, loons are not special. Being the state bird of Minnesota or Hollywood standbys doesn’t elevate them to a protected niche. I know how the biosphere operates, though I’m not always gratified by it.
I watched that young loon for almost 40 hours over the course of six weeks. I talked to her in whispers and shouted encouragement from shore. Biologically, she didn’t merit my support any more than the dozens of mosquitoes and deer flies I thoughtlessly crushed while keeping vigil. But mosquitoes don’t live for 30 years. And loons don’t bite me. We can’t help having our favorites.
It was time well-spent — focused, quiet, profitable. I would have been ecstatic to witness her launch for the Gulf of Mexico in late October. Alas, maybe next time.
Meanwhile, I seek consolation from the 19th-century scientist and adventurer John Muir. Given when he lived and how he lived, I doubt there have been many humans with a stronger marriage to wildness. On one of his epic cross-country-live-off-the-land treks, transecting Michigan into Canada, he found himself lonely and miserable in an Ontario bog. He was exhausted and despondent, intimidated by the power of nature — in a shaky frame of mind that early American wayfarers called “seeing the elephant.” He was worried about how he would pass the night when he spied two Calypso orchids bedded in yellow moss. He was transported.
“They were alone,” he wrote. “I never saw before a plant so full of life; so perfectly spiritual. … I felt as if I were in the presence of superior beings who loved me and beckoned me to come. I sat down beside them and wept for joy.”
Such experiences of biophilia caused him to note that our perception of death is warped. He wrote, “Let children walk with nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams … and they will learn that death is … as beautiful as life.” It’s possible, if they spend enough time watching.
Many people believe that one day we’ll be immortal, thanks to either science or salvation. I’m skeptical of both, but one thing I do know I’ve learned from the loons:
Sing and fly for as long as you have; the time is short.
Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of “Ghosts of the Fireground,” “Letters from Side Lake” and other books.