In Search of the Loon

I had only seen one loon on the lake since we arrived yesterday.  Loons are gregarious birds who pair-bond for life. A lone loon can only mean one thing.  The other is on a nest. In all of the years that I’ve been coming to this lake in Wisconsin’s northwoods, I’ve only seen a loon on a nest once here.  Another time I was lucky enough to watch a pair with 2 fledglings riding, swimming, feeding and learning to be a loon on this same lake.  I was excited that we might see chicks later this week.

So it was with this is mind that I set out in the kayak.  The wind made it difficult to linger close to the grassy and lily pad-lined shore.  It also deterred me from paddling to the shallow back arm of this 114 acre lake where the wind today was strongest.  I wasn’t sure that my kayak-naive arms would be up to taking me all the way back home. I enjoyed the paddle even if I wasn’t able to do any real exploring.

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This westward facing dock is where I started my paddle

Two days later the lake was calm and I set out in the kayak again.  I started along the wooded south shore with its grasses and lily pads.  A great blue heron flushed into flight ahead of me, so well camouflaged that I hadn’t seen him before he took to the air. A single trumpeter swan, that had been hanging around the point since yesterday, glided out into the deep well ahead of me.

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Trumpeter Swan

She alerted with an occasional trumpet call and made a wide arc coming back to shore behind me to return to whatever business she had there.  As I rounded the point toward the shallow arm of the lake (the water is never deeper than 5ft here), I picked up a damselfly that would accompany me for a good part of my trip.

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Friendly damselfly on my leg

Damselflies are usually smaller than dragonflies and always rest with their wings folded. Dragonflies always sit with their wings out to their sides.  The damselflies proved to be common traveling companions on this part of the lake.

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A crowd of damselflies perched on our fishing boat anchor on a different outing.

I began to hear bullfrogs calling in their loud, reverberating twangs.  An occasional, softer ribbit was interspersed in the chorus.  They got louder and louder as I approached and then fell silent as I passed.  I paddled over to an old dock, fallen into disrepair and underwater, creating a nice fish nursery and a great photo opportunity. Cumberland 2017 (12 of 86)

I could see the swan still keeping an eye on me from a distance as I lingered to take pictures.  The water was so calm here. Once I stopped the kayak, it almost stayed put.

Around the next bend in the shoreline the woods gave way to a marsh.  It’s quiet back here except for the soft sound of my paddle gently dipping into the water.  I noticed a cattail-lined nest right at the water’s edge.  I paddled over for a closer look.  It looked like it might’ve been a loon’s nest, maybe from last year though.  Loons prefer to nest right at the water’s edge like this.  They are ungainly on land. Their legs are positioned so far back on their bodies, which makes them strong and efficient swimmers, but rather awkward when trying to walk.

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Old nest at marsh edge

I paddled deeper into this shallow arm of the lake where the schools of fry were becoming smaller and smaller.  Some of these fish look like they hatched this morning! The water lily’s leaves were just beginning to reach the surface and the first shoots of yellow buds were making their way skyward.  Cumberland 2017 (54 of 86)By August this area will be nearly inaccessible. As it is now, most of the vegetation is short and sparse. I can easily dip my paddle between the stems and leaves of lily pads and arrowhead.  However, it would tangle the fishing boat’s motor in no time.  A wood duck flew out of the woods from the east, whistling as they do in flight.  She made a wide circle above me, checking me out, before continuing off on her way to the north.

While the east edge of this arm is a marsh, the west side is a healthy tamarack bog.  Through the clear water I could see mounds of sphagnum moss around the roots of the bog willow, sedge mats and tamaracks growing not far from the open waters’ surface.  I feel like I can see the bog forming and taking shape right before my eyes. One day, eons from now, the bog will have closed in and there won’t be any more water here.Cumberland 2017 (29 of 86)I glide over underwater obstacles; sunken trees, new ground forming and crowns of pondweed.  I’m surprised and delighted to find beautiful pink bog orchids blooming and masses of blooming carnivorous pitcher plants.

The tamarack are holding their bright red cones and blue flag iris and cotton grass are also in bloom.  These are all signs of a healthy bog.

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The red pine cones of the tamarack

The red-winged blackbirds are calling ker-cheee, defending their nests and courting their mates.  Occasionally I float too close and get a chak-chak-chak reprimand.  “Move it along!” they say.  The Kingbird is an aerial acrobat catching insects on the wing along the bog’s edge.  The sun highlights his white tail bar as it fans with each abrupt turn in the air.

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Perched Eastern Kingbird

Song sparrows are also abundant, perching on the willows singing their stuttering trill.  There’s so much life above the bog, I can only image what lies below.

I came upon an active beaver lodge with a well-worn mud trail on one side and an underwater cache of birch on the other.  Next to the submerged mound of birch logs is a dark hole where the lake bottom just disappears.

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Beaver lodge with submerged birch pile in the foreground

It’s the underwater entrance to the lodge! I didn’t want to disturb the beavers, but I did want to get a closer look down into that hole.  I softly and slowly guided the kayak over the birch mound to the edge of the abyss.  In a flash a bluegill came darting out from the depths of that hole and startled me.  My heart to leap into my throat!  That was a close enough look, I moved on.

After a peek through the channel into Little Dummy, I headed back into Big Dummy, toward the island.  I suspected the swan was still in her spot on the opposite shore. I thought I could get a closer look at her by approaching from behind the cover of the wooded 1-acre island.  I was hugging the backside of the island appreciating the river rock in the shallows here, so different from the boggy, mucky bottom near the bog.  I lingered to take pictures of a tree decorated by lichens, woodpeckers, water and the passage of time. Cumberland 2017 (77 of 86) As I rounded the island to paddle toward an overdue lunch, I saw my lone loon in the middle of the deep lake.  He was preening and stretching and looking beautiful as loons do.  Cumberland 2017 (123 of 198)Enjoying his presence, I thought to myself, “Well, I guess that’s the only loon I found today.”  Then I looked toward the island and there was his mate!  She had seen me long before I was aware of her.  She was lying flat-out on the nest, trying to evade notice.  Cumberland 2017 (84 of 86)I took a quick picture and paddled hard away from her.  I wouldn’t have come so close if I’d known she was there and didn’t want to stress her any more than I already had. I was so excited to find the nest.  It made my paddle that much more enjoyable.

Other lakes in the area have loon chicks that have already hatched this year.  So these eggs could hatch any day now.  I will wait in anticipation while I watch from afar.

 

 

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