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.