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Peaceful Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

The little lake we live on is a place of unique peace and quiet. We never hear the roar of engines nor do we see a broad wake rippling across the water, even though there are about a hundred cottages around its shores. But there are people boating and swimming on most weekends and holiday times, with laughter the main sound we hear. This atmosphere comes from the absence of any gas engines on the lake, since they are forbidden on the deed restrictions.

As a result we are also blessed to observe herons, an occasional otter, frequent visits from an eagle, and migratory sea ducks, buffleheads and others, in the spring and fall. But my favorite is the annual arrival of a pair of loons, who seem to like our lake’s quiet atmosphere. Some years ago a neighbor added a floating loon nest near the shore, with some soil on top that soon began to grow native vegetation. The loons mate, and nearly every year, we get to observe them taking turns sitting on the nest about 75 yards from our place. One of our neighbors watches them carefully and usually can predict within a few days when the eggs will hatch.

Common Loon nesting on artificial island

Loons are unique in that they really don’t like to be on land, since they can hardly walk. Their legs can push them awkwardly on solid, or soggy ground well enough to build a nest, lay eggs, and then sit on them until hatched. This year two little balls of fur were released, and within hours they were themselves floating on the water or riding on the mom or dad’s back as they cruise the nearby waters. Loons live 24 hours a day on the water, so their babies adapt to that environment swiftly.

Common Loon pair with chicks

For many people on our lake, watching the loons’ nesting and hatching drama each year is a favorite treat. After the babies are hatched, we see the parents diving and coming up repeatedly with bits of food for the little ones. They grow fast. The adults’ parenting cycle seems abrupt because sometime in early fall, maybe September, the adults fly off, heading perhaps to the Gulf of Mexico for their winter habitat where they will float on the ocean water and dive for their food for winter months. The youngsters, left behind, have begun to practice flying, or attempting to get off the water by late summer or September. A few weeks after the parents have left, the next generation finally launches into the sky, and somehow knowing the way, they too head south for the warmer climate of the Gulf or the nearby Atlantic where their parents have taken up residence.

This Eden-like success is not always the case. We have on occasion had a pair of loons who seemed like juveniles who didn’t realize they needed to stay on the nest virtually continually to keep the eggs warm, and their produce never hatched. Since all common loons look alike, we never know if it’s the same pair as before, but loons do mate for life and tend to return yearly to the same nesting site, the experts tell us.

Sometimes we have seen a bald eagle swoop low nearby and observe the loons make a lot of splashing and loud complaints to keep it away from their fragile children. This year we saw the eagle make a determined dive upon the loon family, mother, father and the two chicks floating near them. The eagle touched the water briefly and swiftly flew off to the west. We were not close enough to see clearly, but several neighbors report that now there is only one baby loon. The eagle evidently saw a tender meal in that month-old baby loon. In other years we have wondered if one of the larger snapping turtles may have caused a young loon to disappear. We hate to see nature "red in tooth and claw."

Most years at least one young loon survives to head off to warmer waters in the fall. We wonder how the parents grieve their losses, this cruel snatching of their precious young. We wonder, too, about the mystery of life and death in this beautiful, natural part of God’s creation.

© 2023 Stanley Hagemeyer

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