Above nature’s hum – the wind whispering through pine needles, the chattering of birds and insects – is that long, almost haunting cry of the loon. They appear in the morning or around evening, a sleek bird alone in a big lake, low to the water, vivid in contrast, red eyes catching the first glints of sunrise that chase the mists off the water.
The loon dives, disappears into the sky’s reflection, and is gone for an impossibly long time. Or is it just that we are looking in the wrong place when it pops back up like a cork, cool and unruffled? Loons can remain submerged up to five minutes, diving as deep as 250 feet, so a couple of fathoms in a lake are a snap to them.
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Their eyes, dull gray in winter, light up red for the summer. Unlike fellow avians, loons don’t have hollow bones, and the added weight challenges them. They can’t take flight from terra firma, and even their water takeoff requires a long runway, at least 100 feet, and, in windy conditions, up to a quarter of a mile.
While we are charmed when the mother bears her chicks on her back, our romantic notion of loons mating for life may be exaggerated. Like human snowbirds, they return to their lake homes after migration every season, and while these may be shared places for mates, they arrive separately to court all over again. And what we call their lonely cry is a basic language of four calls: the tremolo, the yodel, the hoot and the wail. The first two are warnings to encroaching boats, predators and other males, while the hoot is chatter among family. But the wail is what stirs us: the call to a mate, a song reverberating across the water, that says, “Here I am.” An anthem, then, to the peaceful solitude of one alone on a lake in the woods.