It was a rainy morning at this northwoods lake as the first rays of dawn sliced through occasional pockets in the clouds.
Birch and spruce branches, brushed by puffs of light wind, gently swayed. Then it happened, in all its weird, wonderful, haunting splendor.
The plaintive cry of a loon.
First came the piercing yodel of a male loon asserting territorial dominance. Next, a quavering, high-pitched, bizarre laugh-- a-haha-hoo, a-haha-hoo, a-haha-hoo from another loon across the lake. Then, a symphony of tremolos, wails, yodels and hoots, the eerie sounds of half a dozen of the big greenish-black, long-necked, water birds.
The storied loon--three feet long with five-foot wing span and checkerboarded with white streaks, spots and bars--is Minnesota's state bird. Indians believe the cry of the loon is that of a dead warrior refused entry into heaven. Crazy as a loon, goes the old saying--undoubtedly prompted by the bird's loud, uncanny and varied vocalization.
There are more loons in Minnesota--about 10,000, as many loons as lakes--than in any other state except Alaska.
"Minnesotans have always had a love affair with the loon. Minnesotans take great pride in and are extremely protective of this amazing bird," said Minnesota state park ranger-naturalist Ben Thoma.
At this particular daybreak, Thoma, 53, was in his patrol boat checking the well-being of a pair of nesting loons in Y-shaped Lake Itasca.
One of the loons was spotted through binoculars sitting on a matted sedge nest at the end of a fallen spruce tree that extended 40 feet out into the water. Several yards from the nest, signs on three posts protruding from the lake warned:
"Keep Out Loon Nesting."
"Loons are so skittish. It's important that neither the male nor the female sitting on the nest be frightened away. (Because) crows, cranes, raccoons, skunks and other birds and animals hang around waiting for the parent to leave the nest unattended," Thoma said. "A loon's egg is a fine feast for a predator," added the wildlife biologist who has studied loons on Minnesota lakes all his adult life.
Loons are tremendous divers, according to Thoma, who said it's impossible to tell male from female loon from afar--because one parent always stays on the nest while the other's out diving for fish to eat. When boats get too close to a loon nest, Thoma added, the bird flys away, abandoning the eggs to predators.
Thoma shut off the motor and rode quietly to a safe distance outside the posted area where he observed the nesting loon. The loon lay low in the nest with its spectacular big red eyes nervously eyeballing Thoma and his two companions in the boat.
Judy McIntyre, 58, who has her Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Minnesota, is known throughout the ornithology world as the "Loon Lady." She has devoted the last 20 years to loon research in Minnesota, Canada, New York, New England and off the coast of Virginia.
McIntyre organized and hosted the first two North American conferences on Common Loons in 1977 and 1979. Next month the third such conference will be held at Cornell University and is expected to attract nearly 100 ornithologists and wildlife biologists.
The "Loon Lady" has published three dozen scientific papers about the bird. Her book, "Common Loon Spirit of The North," is scheduled to be published by the University of Minnesota early next year. McIntyre is currently professor of biology at Utica College of Syracuse University.
"Minnesota is very lucky to be full of loons," said McIntyre, who has spent a great deal of time studying the impact of recreational use of the lakes on the big bird. "Loons have had a hard time coping with the explosion of shoreline development and boats racing up and down and through areas where loons nest and raise chicks," she noted.
Loons spend about seven months in Minnesota, McIntyre said, then fly to the Atlantic Coast where they winter offshore, feeding on fish. They arrive in Minnesota in April and May, with the thawing of the lakes, and leave in late September and October.
"Loons mate for life. They return to the same lakes each year. We know that by the yodel of the male, a different and distinct one from the other," the ornithologist explained.
In 1971, McIntyre launched the first loon watch in Minnesota--in which lake dwellers, fish and game wardens and rangers keep track of the number of adults and young on the lakes. It caught on quickly and now occurs in all states that have loons.
"The overall Minnesota population is stable and healthy," McIntyre said, "but there have been large die-offs of loons wintering along the gulf coast of Florida since 1983. We believe the cause might be mercury but we're not certain. So far it is a mystery. As many as 7,000 loons died in Florida four years ago."
MacIntyre added that, over the years, there has been a major decline in populations of the protected species in New York and New England. New York has 550 loons, Vermont, 43, and in Massachusetts where Thoreau wrote about loons there are only 14.
Loons thrived on Northern California lakes until about the turn of this century. Now, thousands of loons that summer in Alaska and British Columbia winter offshore along the coast of California. "But Californians do not know the loon," MacIntyre said, because the loons do not come to shore, and the bird does not vocalize in winter when feeding on the Pacific offshore.
To help projects supporting non-game wildlife like loons, bluebirds and bald eagles, Minnesotans may fill out a line on their state income tax forms designating a deduction to be made for the program.
"Last year 11% of Minnesota's taxpayers supported the program at an average of $5.40 for a total of $800,000," noted Carrol Henderson, 41, a wildlife supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
"Loon research; the annual loon census; printing of 100,000 loon posters each year; radio, television and newspaper notices warning people to please stay away from loon nests are supported by the donations," Henderson said.
"We Minnesotans feel very lucky to hear the loons," Henderson said. "As long as we do, we know the wilderness is still here.
"One of the most cherished moments for a Minnesotan is to see a newborn jet black ball of fluff riding on its parents' back during the first couple of weeks of its life."