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Blane Klemek column: Minnesota wouldn't be the same without haunting call of the loon

This loon carrying babies was spotted on Wilson Lake in northeast Minnesota. The babies were apparently less than three weeks old, as they still spent a lot of time riding on the back of one of the adults. Photo by Pete Markham.

A few mornings ago I enjoyed a solo paddle around Assawa Lake, the little shallow lake behind my house. Ringed in cattails with a broad sedge meadow buttressing the lake's south side, I've always marveled at the diversity of wildlife that frequent this serene body of water and surrounding habitat.

Aside from the ever present red-winged blackbirds singing from dead cattail stems, and a few tree swallows flying above the lake capturing insects, I observed nine trumpeter swans, three drake mallards, two pairs of Canada geese, two pairs each of ring-necked ducks, hooded mergansers, and blue-winged teal, one greater yellow legs, and one pair of our state bird, the common loon.

For many summers I've enjoyed the company of at least one loon on Assawa. And every once in awhile I've observed a pair, but for only a short period of time. It was always the case that as spring transitioned into summer and summer into fall, I'd see only one loon swimming and diving and calling with nary another loon in sight. Year in and year out it appeared as though Assawa Lake's resident loon was a loner.

And yet, will 2017 be the outlier? Perhaps this year will be the first year since I've lived along the tiny lake's shores that a pair of loons decide to nest on Assawa. I hope so, as watching and hearing this fascinating species of bird is what I consider a privilege, to be sure.

Few birds evoke our emotions and inspire our yearnings of glorious northern Minnesota summers and bountiful lake country as do our seasonal resident, the common loon. As children swimming or fishing in various lakes in Minnesota's Northland, I would be willing to bet that memories of those cherished childhood moments include the sights and sounds of loons.

My first memory of seeing and hearing loons can be traced back to the young age of eight years old when Mom and Dad decided to spend a week together at a quaint lakeside resort on Marion Lake in Otter Tail County. While fishing from one of the resort's wooden docks or inside the boat with the family, my eyes and ears couldn't get enough of this marvelous bird.

Often swimming nearby, I was fascinated by the ease at which they dove beneath the waves, only to resurface some distance away — usually with a small fish sandwiched tightly in their dagger-like bills.

Most especially pleasing to my ears — then as now — was the loon's incredible and varied vocal repertoire. Surprisingly loud and hauntingly captivating, the cries and yodels of loons are mindful of an ancient language that conjures feelings not unlike those felt when listening to the howls of wolves or the hoot of owls in the dark of night. Few animal sounds exist in nature that are as primordial as those of loons.

Just like I observed the two loons engaging in a few mornings ago on Assawa Lake, loons everywhere are actively establishing pair-bonds and will soon commence the breeding and nesting season, if not already. In the case of the Assawa love-birds, much diving, chasing about, and wing-flapping occurred between the two.

Lively and entertaining, I sat in the canoe for several minutes watching the commotion wondering what it all meant in intimate, loon terms. We humans call such activities as "courtship," which it no doubt is, but to pairs of loons, albeit innate and driven by unknown forces, it's simply exciting times.

Thought to mate for life, it is also believed that loons — and some other birds, for that matter — might not necessarily be spending the entire year as inseparable twosomes. It's widely believed that these springtime "pair-bond" rituals are established annually by somewhat happenstance, in that each bird returns independently to the breeding territory and, hence, "re-establishes" their relationship and affinity to one another. And so, are the animated behaviors of much splashing and chasing really about two birds exceedingly happy to see each other again? It certainly could be the case in loon terms.

In any event, the Assawa loon-pair might decide soon enough to select the small basin to nest in, and I sincerely hope they do. Ample supplies of food such as species of minnows, including mud minnows and bullheads, abound in the lake, as does a plentitude of secretive cover and suitable nest-sites close to the surface of the water, for which the loon-couple could easily slide up onto in order to lay and incubate one, two, or possibly even three eggs.

I, for one, would feel almost father-like should I observe later this season one or more down-covered loon chicks swimming obediently between their doting parents; and I know I'd delight in seeing one such chick riding contentedly on the backs of its watchful parents. And weeks later, come late summer and early autumn to watch fully grown chicks fledge and migrate? That'd be a joyous time as well.

In some ways I wish our state bird's common name didn't include the word common. After all, there's much ado about loons and there really isn't anything ordinary about these special birds. Perfectly adapted to a swimming and diving lifestyle, powerful fliers, and possessing vocalizations unmatched in the animal kingdom, Minnesota's loon is without question one of Mother Nature's most heartwarming sights and sounds as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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