Call of the Wild: Loons
The haunting cry of the common loon is vanishing from many New England waters. Whether we hear it much longer depends on us.
“Is it there? I can’t see anything.” I’m standing on a wooden dock with my husband on a chilly morning in early June, my bare feet plastered with wet grass from our walk down through the meadow. I hand him the binoculars. As he peers across the pond into the marsh, I glance back at the house, hoping our two children are still asleep.
Mist billows across the water, obscuring, then opening, our view. In the direction of our gaze, a stream runs loud after a heavy rain overnight, and I’m worried about the loons–that the nest they’ve sat on for a week may be inundated, that they’ll abandon it.
We look through the curling fog in silence. Then Jim calls out, “There it is!” He hands me the binoculars and talks me toward the narrow prow of grasses jutting by the stream, then back from its tip in among the highest stems.
We’d watched the loons build their nest in that wedge of rushes; over several days, they’d ferried pond weeds and bottom muck to the low hummock. Even so, the nest barely rises above water level. Loons’ legs, set far back on their bodies, don’t support them on land. I’d watched these loons labor to move even a few inches on shore, scooting on their chests, clumsily propelled by their feet. Underwater, though, those legs make sense. The birds pivot them for forceful strokes, draw them together and steer, and fold them back like landing gear. In Europe, the common loon goes by the name “great northern diver.” Some call it a “submarine with wings.” If it could nest in the water, it would.
I see nothing at first, then–stark, silhouetted against the mist–a long, tapered bill. The rest of the loon forms around it. The bill connects to a dark, rounded head. I follow its curve to a necklace of white vertical stripes, then out along the loon’s distinctive white-on-black moire wings. There it is, on the nest, post-downpour, safe.
In the dozen years we’ve lived by this pond in the southern foothills of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, we’ve had loons only as visitors. Until now, none have stayed.
Susie Burbidge, field biologist with the Loon Preservation Committee, the nonprofit that monitors New Hampshire’s loons, drives up in the afternoon. She crouches on the dock, setting up her spotting scope. The fog has long since burned off. We look straight into the nest; the pair has built it well. She says our pond–30 acres at best–may be the smallest in the state hosting a nesting pair. It’s ridiculous, but I feel proud.
Even before these two touched down here, I’d been learning about loons in New England. So I know that they’re mysteriously disappearing from lakes where we should expect to find them–in fact, from the very center of their celebrated recovery. Their decline has ramifications far beyond the small world of loon watchers.