Of Woods And Words: Learning To Dive

loon babies.jpg
loon babies.jpg

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One night in late June, a pair of loons in the bay outside the cabin took to caterwauling. They whooped, yodeled, and called all night long.

The next morning the loons still swam in the bay, calling out occasionally. An inky, fluffy blob popped out from under the wing of one of the adult loons. Suddenly all of the loons’ noise from the night before made perfect sense. They’d had a chick hatch.

You’d have thought no one had ever seen a baby loon before. Within a couple hours, everyone living around the bay had spotted the little guy swimming about in the bay with his parents and had made a point of pointing out the chick to other neighbors. After a couple summers without any loon chick sightings, everyone saw the little guy as a hopeful sign of natural normality.

We’ve kept tabs on the loon family. They’re hardly pets, but we feel a certain responsibility for the world they live in. We pointed out when we spotted the family swimming in the distance. We pulled out binoculars and spotting scopes to watch the loon family feed. We took countless blurry pictures of the family when they swim into the bay. And more than anything we worried about them.

We worried when the loon chick was tiny and his parents would leave him bobbing on the lake’s surface when they dove underwater for supper. We worried if the tiny little guy would grow big enough to be able to make his first winter migration. Now, as the summer grows old, the loon chick has grown into a sleek grey shadow of his parents. He’s big enough to ward off most predators and we’ve begun to worry about what sort of world our loon baby will find when he makes his first winter journey south.

When the loons first arrived in the bay this spring, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was just unfolding. We welcomed the sight of the loons with a sigh of relief. Somehow, it felt as though we were keeping the loons safe from harm. As the disaster of the oil spill morphed out of comprehension and the baby loon emerged, it became apparent that the loons were just experiencing a temporary safe haven from an environmental disaster that would no doubt affect a significant number of loons. We won’t know if our loon family

Lately the chick has been practicing his dive. He hasn’t quite mastered his technique. He comes popping up to the surface long before his parents reemerge. Soon he’ll have to practice flying so he can make the long autumn flight to an ocean coast.

In her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes about monarch butterflies who make a wild jog in their migration course when they cross Lake Superior. It’s believed the butterflies are remembering where a large mountain once stood. "I’d like to be it," says Dillard. "To feel where to turn." We can’t tell the baby loon to fly somewhere, anywhere besides the Gulf of Mexico this fall when he senses it’s time to leave this original home place of his. But we can hope as he flaps across the great Lake Superior that he’ll feel where to turn.

Airdate: August 18, 2010

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