When I was first living here, thirty or so years ago, loons were a treasured sight. They were slowly coming back from near extinction and most of us would pull over to the side of the road if we spotted one on a lake as we were driving by. They are stunning, large birds, distinctive for their vivid black and white feathers, the natty black and white ring around their necks and beady red eyes. If you get close to them in a canoe or kayak, you can see all of this in stunning detail. Their return has been closely watched by certain loon lovers on lakes everywhere. Here at the farm, I am frequently treated to the yodel-like chuckle of the loons flying overhead. Since I am in a direct line between Dublin Lake and Silver Lake, both favored by loons, I have always assumed they are flying between these two lakes. Most often, I hear them overhead in the early morning and in the evening, flying home.
Recently, I’ve been reading quite a lot in the papers about the loons, whose numbers are apparently receding after such a successful return, so successful that they were becoming almost common. I was surprised and upset to learn of this, which made me realize I haven’t been hearing my loons pass overhead as much this summer. I felt like I’d been witness to a span of evolution. The loons return; the loons decline. The culprit has been identified as lead sinkers used by fishermen. A movement has begun to ban the use of lead in fishing tackle. I actually had thought they were banned years ago.
Last week, I went out in a canoe with a friend who told me that they had been watching a nesting loon across the lake. Whenever there are nesting loons on the lake, signs are posted and protections are put in place to guard the nest. It’s especially dangerous to have loud motorboats and water skiers passing near the nest. She likes quiet and her loyal mate can be found on guard nearby, whistling and cautioning. We paddled across the lake to see how close we could get. A canoe or kayak provides enough stealth so that it’s possible to drift near to the nest to get a peak. She was on the far side of a small island covered with trees and blueberry bushes, a popular place for people to go to pick. When we got around to the other side, we saw the signs, warning that a nesting loon was near. We backpaddled and then drifted slowly near the shore. Of a sudden, the mother came into sight, right in front of me. Because they cannot walk on land, their nests are typically right at the edge of the water, which was the case here. I could almost touch her. She was curled on the nest, her head curled under her wing, still as a stone. I almost gasped, the sight was so rare, so beautiful. I felt my heart lift. Loons alive! It was intimate proof of their return.
We slowly drifted past and she never looked up or stirred. About thirty yards distant, her mate let out a few nickers of alarm but otherwise let us pass. Coming off the lee of the island, we paddled around the shallows near the shore for a while. In time, we came to a cottage where another friend was picking blueberries with her grandsons. We stopped to talk, holding ourselves steady with our paddles. “We saw the loon!” I said. No need to identify which loon. “Yes,” she said, “but we’re very worried about that loon. She’s been sitting on those eggs for too long. We think that there’s something wrong. Those chicks should have hatched two weeks ago.” My heart sank. These things happen in nature, it wasn’t necessarily linked to the depressing news about the lead sinkers and the corresponding decline in the loon population. But, still, I felt the jarring sense of having had my spirits lift and fall in a short span of time.
A few days later, my friend e-mailed me a blurry image of mother and two chicks. “I guess Barbara was too pessimistic about the state of the loon eggs! These babies were first spotted on the lake two days ago,” she wrote. That would have been just a day after we passed by the tired mother. In the photo, the proud mother swam ahead of her two tiny little ones, cautious new life.