We were halfway around Como Lake when I heard it—the long mournful three-tone whistle-cry that grew in volume. I stopped. What is that? What is that? I know that sound. But it was utterly out of context, and I had to think to place it.
The bird called again. I stopped Doug and made him take out his earbuds. (He was listening to American Music Club on his iPod.) Doug, I hear a loon!
Como Lake is a small, urban lake. It is popular with mallards and wood ducks, herons and geese, and the occasional bald eagle. Not loons. Loons are shy northern waterbirds that we are sometimes lucky enough to hear when we’re Up North. They are not birds you commonly see, or hear, in the middle of a Saint Paul neighborhood.
Of course, Doug thought I was delusional. But there it was again, and this time he heard it too: aaaa oooooo ooooooooooo.
And then I saw them, out in the middle of the lake: By golly, a flock of about a half-dozen loons.
That April morning was gray and lightly foggy. The loons, we learned from other loon-watchers in the neighborhood, had flown in two days before, to pause on their way north for the spring migration. Floating among them were some mergansers and a few eared grebes—funny, herky-jerky birds with patches of orange on their oddly round heads. The usual ducks and Canada geese also populated the water. They were all bobbing on our little neighborhood lake, the newcomers and the regulars—the loons’ sharp profiles and white chests unmistakable amid the mallards and geese.
In late afternoon, we visited the lake again. The loons were still calling. By now, dozens of people had gathered along the shore, watching.
People knelt in the cattails, aiming long lenses at the water. People stopped at the edge of the path, binoculars pressed to their eyes. Others clustered in small groups and simply stared. One woman raised her cell phone and snapped a shot.
Cars stopped in the middle of the road so that the drivers could gawk. A guy behind the wheel of a green minivan peered through binoculars he held with one hand while chatting on a cell phone he held in the other. I’m watching it right now! It’s on the east side of the lake!
Loons live their entire lives on the water. They never come to shore; they cannot walk on land. They need lakes of a certain size in order to take off, run-skimming across the water a good distance before taking flight, and they have been known to get stuck on small lakes that don’t have enough room for their taxiing.
They stay mostly in the middle of the lake; they don’t hang around in the weeds the way the mallards do. So with only a pocket-sized digital point-and-shoot, my pictures weren’t very good. But they were a reminder, later, of the wonderful guests in our neighborhood that weekend.
Sunday turned warm and summery. In early evening, in seventy-degree sunshine, we walked down to the lake again. But the water was empty. The North had called, and the loons and grebes had moved on.
Laurie Hertzel is the books editor of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and has been a Saint Paul resident for nearly fifteen years. The University of Minnesota Press published her memoir, News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist, in September 2010.
Minnesotan loon photo courtesy of Steve Wall. Please browse Steve's Flickr photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevewall/