Loony tunes

Memorial Day 26 May 2014
Sidney, Maine

A common loon and chick. Courtesy of http://www.allaboutbirds.org

I’m sitting in the backyard of a summer home near Lake Messalonskee (which is bizarrely also called Snow Pond – it is clearly a fat lake and not a trim pond. The snow I believe because though it’s late May I still have a sweatshirt on. New England has a funny idea of spring). Somewhere on the lake I hear the wail of a common loon (Gavia immer) – a bird I’ve not paid much attention to until this weekend. The wail is a long, wolf-howl-in-a-misty-primeval-forestcall that starts low in pitch and then climbs a hill of octaves at the end. The loon is using this wail to let other loons know where he is. Another will call back. It’s effective because the loon is using the surface of the lake as a megaphone.

Two nights ago I lay in a hammock listening to a loon’s haunting tremelo (which means to lower and raise the volume quickly) echoing across the lake. The sound of the loon’s tremelo reminded me of the sound of a fast-spinning wheel that’s threatening to jump off its axle – but it’s a beautiful and stirring sound.

The loon has an incredible repertoire of calls and it’s hard to find analogies of what they sound like. To me they are distinctive and sound like, well, loons.

Click here to listen to their other calls.

The loon’s haunting calls are announced from a heavy-bodied bird with a black-and-white checkerboard body and an impossibly black head.  A deep, rich black with no luster, like a fresh, virgin chalkboard. A red eye is nestled in the rich sea of black of the head. An eye that has seen eons of evolution happen around it while it held on to its primeval features.

Loons are ancient in terms of birds.  If you look in your field guide for birds in North America (go ahead, I’ll wait for you to get yours), the first bird you’ll likely see is the loon. That’s because these books are often organized in evolutionary age with the oldest first and the most modern last. Loons have what are considered primitive features (primitive does not connote antiquated or maladaptive) such as heavy bones, unlike the more recently evolved birds whose bones are hollow and light. These heavy bones make for heavy bodies and as a result loons need a long runway of water for takeoff, sometimes as long as a quarter mile.  A loon that lands in a small pond or a wet parking lot is stranded there without a long enough runaway to take off. And this loon will call its calls and may never hear an answer.

The calls of loons are conversations that we overhear on the internet of the lake. They are haunting and primeval to our human ears because they are echoes from ancient times – a time before there was a Snow Pond and summer houses in Maine.


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