Loon Songs

A northern June morning.  Frost on the roof, a chill in the air. The lake quiet, perfect reflections glisten in the clear morning air.

The sun rises to the east in a pure blue sky. It lights the shore on the west while the eastern shore remains in darkness. Brilliant shades of yellow and pale green on the right contrast with the deeply black shadows amoung the various greens of the pines to the left.

Quiet is an illusion on a late spring morning. Song sparrows, warblers, woodpeckers all sing out: to find a mate, to defend a territory, to seek out food, and perhaps simply to celebrate the coming of warmer days.

The loons are quiet this morning. Several pairs in our area have returned from winter holidays in the south. They come north to enjoy with us the clean quiet lakes, the long, warm days, and the bright starry nights.

In the background, there is another noise, far away and faint. A spring freshet still carries the meltwater down the hill at the end of our bay. Only on these very calm mornings can it be heard shh-shushing though the forest.

Off in the far, far distance, a loon calls. One of four songs the loon brings to the lake, this one is a tremolo. This call is described as a sort of laughter – and nearly always the loon is in flight. One of my reference books suggests that this call indicates alarm – something has disturbed the loon, it takes flight. (The Loon, Voice of the Wilderness by Joan Dunning is an excellent book that describes the life cycle of this mysterious creature.)

Nearby, I hear the loon that lives in our bay call out with a wail. A long, clear note, often heard for great distances. I think of this call as reaching out to her mate – a long drawn out “Where aaaare you?”

Closer now, I hear the loon in flight, singing out the tremolo — oo-ooo-ooo-oo-oooo. Listening more carefully, I hear it is two loons flying together. Soon they are overhead, not much higher than the trees, flying east.

The nearby loon on the water calls still louder, closer, a long mournful wail. Of course it only sounds mournful to me. To the loon, she may just be saying that she’d like her mate to come out fishing with her this morning.

I don’t hear the other two calls loons make this morning. The yodel we hear most often at dusk, or in the middle of the night. Dunning suggests that it is a song that defines, and defends territory. “…a slow, rising note followed by several undulating phrases”. You know this song, ooooooooo-oo-oooooooooo-oo- oooooooooooo….. This is the song of an early summer night.

The fourth call of the loon is a short, quiet hoot or kwak. I have only heard them use this after the little chicks join them, and perhaps stray too far for comfort. It is indeed a very personal word that the parents have with their little ones.

We are still a few weeks away from seeing loon chicks on the lake. Having taken separate holidays for the winter, the males and females are just settling in to their summer territory. They dance in courtship rituals, swim together, fish together. This month they will venture on land to mate, and to nest. But loons don’t like the land – they build their nests right at the water’s edge. If I’m lucky, I’ll see them on the nest as I paddle silently by, on quiet morning such as this.

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