AND THEN THERE WAS ONE
BY MITCH MODE
I can’t tell you how long it’s been; four years, maybe five. That many years that I’ve watched a pair of loons on a nest not far from town. That many springs I heard their calls; that many times they nested; that many seasons that they did not produce a single chick.
How many times heard their wild and crazy call? How many times met their red eyes? How many times seen them in the golden light of sunrise?
I watched them on their sorry excuse for a nest; a muddy area the size of a dinner plate just above the water line. I watched them on the nest when the black flies swarmed. I watched them in rain and I watched them in heat when they sat with open bill as if panting like a dog.
I saw the nest abandoned when the flies were too thick. I saw fragments of eggs left when raccoon took them for dinner. I saw them sit stoically, statue-still and all for naught.
I photographed them from a kayak. They grew used to me and I could get quite close. We would regard each other from across the short span of backwater; loon on nest; me in kayak. I took a lot of photos of the bird on the nest and on the water.
I have photographs where the black flies sat thick and maddening on the head to the adult. I have photos of them on a hot day, bill gaping open. I have photos of them in water and in air.
I spent time with the loons. But I never saw a single chick come from them.
Not until this year. Not until 2 weeks ago on a day when I eased the kayak close and tied it to some marsh grass. Then I watched and waited. The big bird watched me. Then movement to the side as if shadow was passing. Then shadow turned to form and a brown chick wobbled out from under the wing. The adult turned to it, lowered its bill to better view the chick. All stood still for a moment; adult loon, downy chick and, across the stretch of water, me in the boat.
I watched that young bird, hours old, saw it bite at leaf, watched it rest and then watched as it stumbled to the water and swam. Hours old and swimming. Swam a few feet then crawled back up; loon chick and parent bird.
An hour later a second chick hatched.
I watched it all. It was a sunny day in early June and all was right.
Then movement to my right; snapping turtle, big and looking prehistoric as they do. Climbed up out of the dark water on a mud bank and rested in the sun. The loon watched it; a threat to loon chicks, a major cause of chick mortality. There was tension in the air as if storm was coming. But the turtle did not see the loons.
Next day I was back and the loons, the two adults and two chicks, had left the quiet backwater bay and were swimming in the big lake. I paddled with them and I photographed them. The young ones rested on the back of the adults. The chicks swam on their own and, incredibly, dove! A day plus old and diving fully underwater then popping back up like corks released from below.
The adults watched me and then they too began to dive. They would ease low in the water, pause a moment and then push off with their large, webbed feet and dive. A minute later they’d surface with something green and plant-like in their bill and then feed it to the young.
From where I watched it seemed for all appearances that they were feeding strands of weed. It was not until I got home and downloaded the photos was I able to tell; they were feeding insect larvae to the chicks, the larvae of dragonflies or mayflies; I could not tell then nor can I today. But in the enlarged photos it was clear that it was insect, not plant.
I e-mailed photos to a friend who wondered about the ability of the big birds to locate the small insect (they appear an inch long is all) underwater in the dark. Wondered, did he, about the red eyes and if they were that much more effective in those conditions. We both marveled at the big birds being able to find and hold the larvae and focus only on that particular species.
It is not an easy task to raise the young loons; chances for success are stacked against the birds.
I spent time with the loons as I could. Mornings were best, when the lake was calm and the light good. On days of rain and cloud I’d fret about missing the time on the water. On days of work I’d sulk, wishing to be out, wondering if they would be there when I did get out.
I filled a file with photos; the adult birds in their proud plumage; the chicks bright-eyed and indistinct in form with no feathers to define them.
But they were together, the four of them. The big birds and the small ones against all odds, against a mean, unforgiving world.
All was right. Then one morning it was not. One morning in the light of post-dawn the white breasts of the adult birds seemed to glow in the sun. I paddled as if toward a beacon. I saw one chick as I drew close. I looked for the other, perhaps resting under the wing of an adult, perhaps hidden behind.
One adult swam out toward me; the other hung back. I looked long and hard under the clear sky and the bright sun. I looked for both chicks, hoping with the passing minutes against the reality. I looked for a long time. For I saw what I did not want to see.
There was now only one chick.
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