Tag Archives: North American lakes

A Bird’s Eye View

I’ve spent a lot of time at my kitchen sink the past few weeks.
1treekitchenYou’d think I’m a woman who likes to wash dishes – which actually I do, if there aren’t too many.  I appreciate the instant gratification of turning a dirty plate clean, the warmth of the water, the tickle of suds on my hands.  But it’s what unfolded just beyond the window by the kitchen sink that captured my attention, a family reality show playing right there through the screen: The Robins Raise their Triplets.

2mama nestI was a little slow tuning in.  Mama Robin’s red breast caught my eye one morning as she pecked at their cozy little home, snuggled in a fork of a birch tree.  I couldn’t see inside the nest, but once Ms. Robin finished her chores and settled in for a good long sit, I understood that she’d been rotating her eggs, keeping the babies inside from getting stuck to the shells, and also helping to ensure a uniform temperature, which she maintained with her own body heat, emanating from a patch on her belly gone bare for just this purpose.

From that moment on, I couldn’t catch enough of the drama: first the several days’ wait for the hatch, during which Mama Robin laid faithfully on the nest during sunshine and downpours, daylight and dark, leaving 3earthwormcutonly occasionally to find some food.  Papa Robin came by to visit, but mostly he busied himself in the yard, hopping around and looking proud already, his breast thrust out and head tilted upward as he kept neighborhood watch.

After several days of waiting, the big moment happened inside the walls of the nest. It was too high up for me to see the breakthroughs, but life became so hectic for the Parents Robin that I knew they had hatchlings. Now both of them were busily pecking at the yard, hunting, gathering, returning to the nest for a quick drop off before 4tulipscutheading out to work again.  A couple of days later, the little ones began to peep, and then their demands became visible as well as vocal.  Three little carrot-colored throats extended upward over the nest rim, their gaping bills like freshly opened tulips undulating in the breeze.  Their cry was unmistakable:  “Feed me!  Feed me!” And they were insatiable, eyeing the sky for a parent and springing into upward open-mouthed position 5mamapapacutwhen Mama or Papa (or sometimes both together) would swoop down on a nearby branch before delivering breakfast – or lunch, or dinner, or in between meal snacks. Earthworms appeared to be the edible of 6grasshopperchoice, although the occasional hapless grasshopper or other bug found itself staring down a throat of no return.

7teenagerAfter a meal, the tired youngsters would flop their little heads on the side of the nest, sometimes staring straight at me, the down on their heads looking like double Mohawk haircuts glistening in the sun, their endlessly 8jostling and competingopen mouths still making demands. Come to think of it, they must have been teenagers by now!  They grew restless, preening and jostling and competing with each other for food. And they just plain grew. It had been barely more than 9flashreda week when the first one flashed me a glimpse of bulging red breast. Their abode began to look more cramped than cozy.

And then one morning came the inevitable.  I turned on my coffee pot, carried the cats’ bowls to the sink, looked out the window and the birch tree seemed suddenly, heartrendingly barren. Ms. and Mr. Robin had become empty nesters.  I’d anticipated this moment, reminding myself that successful parenthood is all about raising the youngsters to spread their wings and make their own ways in the world. And I know they grow up fast, but still, I wasn’t quite ready for these kids to be gone. And, as in so many families, 10outerit turned out that one of the kids wasn’t either. I didn’t notice him until afternoon, huddled on an outermost branch several feet from the nest, wobbling a bit, tentatively flapping his wings every once in a while and then wobbling some more. Frankly, he looked too fat to fly. But he still had an eye out for handouts.  A parent would wing in every so often and pop a worm into his mouth like a mom shoving a casserole into the oven and then rushing on to other chores.  Could it be that part of the chores was checking on the other children?  I’d read that training flights were part of the program before full independence from the parents, so I spent some time outside, watching Mama and Papa Robin pecking for food and then following their routes through the air.  Sure enough:  one fledgling had moved into a high rise, a towering birch in the side yard.  Another had settled in the suburbs: a stately, plush fir on the edge of the woods out back.

I decided that I could not devote my days to wandering from tree to tree to check on progress, so I settled for watching the one triplet still outside the window.  And sadly, I missed the moment of his final disappearance through my screen. A parent had just flown in for a feeding, which he’d gobbled with his usual gusto.  I looked down for barely a few seconds and when I looked up, he was gone.

Will there be a sequel?  I don’t know yet.  Robins lay more than one clutch each summer and sometimes they reuse their nest.  So I’ll stay tuned.  Meantime, an inordinate amount of birdcalls has alerted me to a sparrow nest right outside my bathroom window.  Oh dear.  Maybe I’d better stock up on bubble bath.

Going Loony!

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.Two loons

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.

waitingLoons 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 Loon percarious position nest copyhatch, 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 loonchickonbackenough 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 loonchicksee 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.