A loon’s cry is the anthem of wild places.
[by Tom Walker]
Just after daybreak, John Toppenberg and I slid his canoe down the bank and into the tranquil water. A dense fog blanketed the lake, masking the far timber. Every sound—a paddle against the hull, the rustle of raingear—resonated in the unsullied silence.
A few yards from shore, we stopped paddling, content to float in the mist and wait for good shooting light. The lake mirrored the fog, and without horizon lines it was like drifting through a cloud, the droplets from our paddles the sole disturbance. Hardly whispering in the almost eerie quiet, we strained to hear our quarry.
Just as the eastern sky brightened, the scream of a bald eagle broke the hush. Then, as if in answer, a loon’s tremolo shattered the dawn, a long warning of the eagle and its threat. Behind us another loon chimed in, the duet reverberating across the lake. The first call had sounded the alarm; what message came next, what communication, I could only imagine. Suddenly the calling stopped; the silence again absolute, the dawn ripe with mystery.
John dipped his paddle once, turning us to the east, toward the closest loon. As the light strengthened, shapes appeared through the thinning fog: trees, reeds, and the rise of a nearby hill. Robins and gulls began to talk, and the first swallows darted low over the water. In amber light we inched forward, straining to spot the loon we thought close by. Out of the corner of my eye I saw something dive, leaving behind bright rings of golden water. John rotated the bow toward the expanding circles. The seconds ticked into minutes that seemed to stretch into hours. Then, there!
Close ahead a common loon, a small fish clamped in its bill, surfaced through the mirrored water. With a quick toss of its head, the loon swallowed its catch. The loon’s red eyes peered at us for a moment, silvery droplets catching light on its head and neck. I lifted my camera and fired a burst just as the loon rose and flapped its wings—a serendipitous, luminous moment.
While the fog dissipated we followed and photographed the loon as it meandered back to its nest. Sometimes it would surface close to the boat; other times farther out but never displaying alarm. John has lived on this Kenai Peninsula lake for 19 years and in that time the loons have grown tolerant of his presence. Elsewhere such close contact would disturb nesting loons; here, they care less—for two decades successfully rearing chicks, much of the time with John nearby.
In front of the nest hidden in tall, shoreline grass, the loon paused to watch its mate rouse itself and slip into the water, leaving exposed two large, olive drab eggs. The pair takes turns incubating the eggs, and we were witnessing the changing of the guard. Through binoculars I watched the loon struggle up the low bank and onto the nest. Before settling down for its shift atop the nest, it used its bill to turn the eggs for even warming. As if reprieved, the second loon sped away, paddling right by our canoe. Just off the stern it dived but soon surfaced with a small, wriggling prize. Ravenous after a long night’s vigil, the loon made dive after dive, each one successful.
That morning on the lake was one of the highlights of my five decades as a wildlife photographer. Of all Alaska’s waterfowl, the common loon enthralls me the most. Common is the wrong word for this uncommon bird. In summer these divers sport a regal pattern of black and white with a checkered mantle. Under directional light, their throat patch takes on a rich blue-green hue.
Loons feed on fish, crustaceans, snails, leeches, frogs, and insect larvae. A loon’s underwater fishing pursuits are spectacular. With powerful thrusts of paddle-shaped feet, loons torpedo through the water, executing sharp flip-turns to catch fleeing prey. Loons go ashore only to mate and incubate eggs. Their legs, placed far back on their bodies, allow efficient swimming but awkward movement on land, as we saw when the loons traded places.
Five kinds of loons nest in Alaska: common, red-throated, Pacific, arctic, and yellow-billed. Common loons nest on forested lakes and are thus more accessible to people than tundra nesters. People love loons, but caution is necessary during nesting season; our homes and activity may displace loons or disrupt their nesting. Volunteers for “loon watches” in Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley protect and monitor nesting loons and their habitat.
Wildlife all across North America speaks to us: owls hoot, coyotes yodel, geese call, elk bugle, and wolves howl. But for many northerners, it is the haunting cry of the loon echoing from twilight waters that is the embodiment of the northern mythology, and the very anthem of wild, pristine places.
Tom Walker is a writer and nature photographer who has resided in Alaska for 51 years. This author of 14 books lives near Denali Park.