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Birds of a Feather
by Tom Thomson

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Chasing Loons

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On a rainy March day many years ago I found sixty-seven common loons scattered along the waters of the O'Shaughnessy Reservoir north of Columbus. Other observers have seen more loons at one time in Ohio, especially on Lake Erie, but the sixty-seven I saw that day impressed me enough that I was quite happy with the experience. Loons are noble birds and any time I see even one is a red-letter day.

That event remains in my memory as sharply recalled as if it had happened only recently. A low pressure area passing through the upper midwest had brought a flow of warm air into Ohio-.and with it the loons. With their primeval knowledge, they had taken advantage of the favorable winds, ridden that latitudinal escalator for all it was worth- and when they stopped to rest, they became a nice prize for my eyes, and my sensibilities.

Earlier in the day there had been intermittent rain from nimbus clouds scooting along before a southwest wind. During the early afternoon, that weather had given way to a low ceiling and a gray stillness-absolutely void of wind- accompanied by a significant amount of fog. That was when I found the first of the loons.

The effect was wondrous because the fog had produced two opposing effects, the most obvious being to shut out the rest of the world, yet it was this very phenomenon that created the second effect, an imagined or apparent magnification of everything within the bounds of vision, including the loons.

As I looked at the first half dozen of them through my binoculars, it was incredible the way they loomed up, seemingly bigger than life, and I can say unashamedly that I experienced a sensation that birders sometimes enjoy and which can possibly be described by the term virtual reality. In effect, a melding together of the birder as subject and the bird, its habitat, and its historical milieu, as objects. Producing what Claude Levi-Strauss, or a Native Mind, might define as a vision of the natural world in its entirety.

In this context it seems very reasonable to know that loons date back to the Niocene Epoch of the Tertiary Period. Or, closer in time, that they once occurred on almost every pond and lake of the North Country. Looking at them like I did that day made time negotiable and protean.

In that unequaled book, Birds of America, Edward Howe Forbush proclaimed that "Of all the wild creatures which still persist in the land, despite settlement and civilization, the Loon seems best to typify the untamed savagery of the wilderness." I am inclined to agree.

Whenever I see a loon, I think of Henry David Thoreau, that peculiar but immensely talented man who, over the years, remains one of my perennial heroes, a veritable icon of all that is reasonable and intelligent in mankind.

I wonder what long-ago literature class was I in and who was my benevolent teacher when I first read Thoreau's classic account of a game of hide-and-seek with a loon on Walden Pond?

". . . suddenly one, sailing out from the shore toward the middle a few rods in front of me, set up his wild laugh and betrayed himself," he wrote.

"I pursued with a paddle and he dived, but when he came up I was nearer than before. He dived again, but I miscalculated the direction he would take, and we were fifty rods apart when he came to the surface this time, for I had helped to widen the interval; and again he laughed long and loud, and with more reason than before."

Not quite the objective naturalist willing to concede the pond to the loon, he continued the chase until "At length, having come up fifty rods off, he uttered one of those prolonged howls, as if calling on the god of loons to aid him, and immediately there came a wind from the east and rippled the surface, and filled the whole air with misty rain, and I was impressed as if it were the prayer of the loon answered, and his god was angry with me, and so I left him disappearing far away on the tumultuous surface."

So it is that once again I discover another rewarding dimension to life and nature: Experiences and interpretations by other minds.

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