Southern loon’s call moves the mind northSAM COOK: I stepped out of my tent last Friday morning and heard the unmistakable cry of a loon. But the bird wasn’t anywhere near Minnesota.
By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune
I stepped out of my tent last Friday morning and heard the unmistakable cry of a loon.
But the bird wasn’t anywhere near Minnesota.
Phyllis and I were camped on a remote portion of a barrier peninsula off the Florida Panhandle. The sun wasn’t up over the treetops yet. I was just getting ready to build a breakfast fire.
The call came from the bay side of the peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico. It wasn’t a full wail, just the first rising note of the call. But it was clipped off prematurely, as if the bird had had second thoughts.
I stopped in my tracks, listening for more. But that was all I was going to get.
I was amazed at what even that hint of a wail had stirred in my soul. I was 1,300 miles from northern Minnesota, but that sound got inside of me and took me home. I was no longer building a fire on a dune along the Gulf. I had been carried back to a point of rocks in canoe country, blackened pots on the fire grate, the first shafts of sunlight slicing through jackpines.
I wanted more last Friday morning, wanted that loon to cut loose with a full-on wail or rip off a cascading yodel. But that wasn’t likely. The loons that leave Minnesota and Wisconsin for the Gulf each winter are different birds. Their dramatic black-and-white plumage fades to a dull gray or brown. They rarely call. They patrol the clear waters, feeding on flounder, crabs, lobster and shrimp. Not a bad life, it would seem.
I wondered if the loon I heard that morning was an adult and if it might soon be making its return flight to the North. Maybe that abbreviated cry was just a tune-up, a test-call to reassure the bird that he still had it.
In a week or so, we’ll start to see loons on the near-shore waters of Lake Superior. They’ll begin making their inland flights to see if the ice is out. The day the ice goes out on their chosen waters, loon pairs will come belly-flopping down onto that ice-cold water to set up nesting territories.
They’ll be in breeding plumage by then, looking good. And the bays will once again echo with the loon’s mournful wails and wild tremolos.
The call of a loon conjures up powerful images for anyone who has spent time in the North. For some of us, it’s a sauna tucked tight by the water, grandkids dripping on the dock at sunset. For others, it’s a morning cup of coffee on the deck, barefoot in your bathrobe. For paddlers, it’s a snug camp in canoe country beneath a stand of white pines.
We yearn for the calling of loons this time of year. For those of us who haven’t been down South, dining on flounder and lobster and shrimp, it’s been a long winter.
Nothing says spring in the North like the cry of a loon drifting over a glacier-scoured lake. The quacking of wood frogs in a vernal pond is nice. A robin bopping across the lawn is reassuring. A pair of mallards courting in a flooded ditch is encouraging.
But it isn’t spring until the loons come home.
Sam Cook is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or scook@ duluthnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @samcookoutdoors.