I am a very lucky woman.
Every year around this time, I go a bit loony – and no one seems to mind. My family and I flee the Florida summer swelter for a lakeside camp several states to the north, a place where it can get cold enough to snow on Memorial Day and ice over in August. That is where it starts: the wailing, the yodeling, the hooting, most of it in the darkest depths of the night, carried at tremendous volume over the still water, waking sleepers and spooking the uninitiated. These are the calls of the common loon, and I am crazy for them. In fact, I’m a little bit crazy for loons period, and I am not alone.
These beautiful and intriguing birds populate waters of the northern U.S. and Canada, their distinctive black and white speckled backs, white breasts, black necks adorned by a necklace of stripes and brilliant red eyes a summertime fixture in the breeding grounds to which they return after wintering in distant climes. And here “grounds” is a bit of a misnomer, as the loon spends most of its time in the water, except for when it is copulating or incubating its eggs.
Loons are faithful birds, which accounts for part of my – and others’ – fascination with them. Because they are generally true to their home territories, returning year after year to their customary lakes, loon lovers go out looking for “our” birds. Are they back? Are their nests in the same spot? Do they have any hatchlings?
Loons are also faithful to their families, from mating to the offspring’s maturity, and amazingly egalitarian in their duties. They even look alike. Mates share the work of building the nest, sitting on the eggs until they hatch, and then feeding and raising their young. Last year, one of “our” mating pairs built their nest on a narrow bog unfortunately close to boat traffic, prompting them to hop off frequently when frightened by motors or gawkers who came too close. The eggs, which usually take a month to incubate, never hatched. Yet the parents sat there nearly all summer long, devoted to their duty, holding out hope.
We loon watchers love to look for a baby – brown in color at this stage – riding on its parent’s back, warm and safer from predators, until it is large enough to both fish and fend fulltime for itself. We love to watch an adult loon dive beneath the water’s surface and then wait while scouring the lake to see where it will turn up. Mature loons can dive to 200 feet and stay submerged for several minutes, so tracking their surfacing spot can be quite a challenge – unless they call out. Which brings us back to that hooting and wailing. Loon language is easily understood once you get the hang of it. The hoot says, “Here I am!” or, “Where are you?” The wails back and forth help loons determine distance from each other. The yodel is for males only, warning, “My territory!” And then there is the tremolo, the eerie vocalization that sounds like a vaguely demented laugh but is actually an alarm call. (Some think the tremolo is the inspiration for the saying, “crazy as a loon,” but it may have more to do with the moon or lunar phases than with this terrestrial talking.)
This coming Saturday, my husband and I will hop in our kayaks and head out for the annual loon census run by the local conservation society. At the same exact hour on every lake in our area, volunteers count the loons they spot. So far, so good. Local populations seem to be stable. Humans are banding together to protect health and habitat. I hope the loons we see regularly will show up at the appointed time to be counted, and not be off on a jaunt to some nearby body of water. They’re “ours,” after all. Or at least it’s fun to feel that way during the short time that I’m here and going loony.