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by Tom Thomson
A Wayward Loon
To see a loon in flight, to my mind, is to see a prototype of a modern jet plane. Both are superb in aerodynamic design. Sturdy swept back wings are set far back on big heavy bodies, nicely streamlined, a pleasure to observe at rest or in the air.
The loon and the jet also have another attribute that they share in common. They require long runways for landings and takeoffs, That is why I could never understand how a common loon could have landed on Clear Creek, smack dab in the hills of Hocking County.
A group of birders had accompanied me to the little concrete bridge over the creek near Written Rock where I had promised to show them a summer tanager I had seen earlier that morning in a big sycamore near the bridge.
We were standing there looking for the tanager when Ernie Limes son, Dana, suddenly shouted, "There's a loon down at the bend of the creek." I'm sure that disbelief was written on more than one face as we dutifully looked where he had indicated. I was expecting to see anything other than a loon, perhaps a mallard, a wood duck, or a female merganser of some kind at most.
To our amazement, and I'm sure to Dana's relief-sure enough-there was a common loon in full breeding plumage. It was lolling in the shadowy waters, about a hundred yards away, its velvety black head and neck glinting with greenish highlights, the neck circled by its white collar and bib, the black upper parts geometrically checkered with white dots.
Whether it could obtain any food is highly unlikely since there is no part of Clear Creek deep enough for diving, which is the loon's accustomed method of obtaining the fish it feeds upon.
Our little group stayed in the vicinity of the bridge for about half an hour and during that time there was much conjecture on how the loon had managed to land on the creek and what the chances were of its ever flying out.
Some of us thought that the bird had made its landing either the night before or in the early dawn hours when the valley is often shrouded in mist and fog.
Interestingly enough, not more than a mile or two away, there are two small lakes, the larger of the two set amongst the wooded hills of Barneby Center, an environmental station operated by The Ohio State University. Landing and taking off there would have been less a problem. .
During our conversation on the subject, I outlined how I thought the loon had managed a landing and how it might conceivably be able to take off again.
On its landing approach the big bird must have descended on a circular path over a fallow field immediately to the south of the creek. Then it had to bank sharply, just short of the steep banks of a thickly wooded hemlock slope, then thread its way between several willows and sycamores, reduce flying speed, come in low over the concrete bridge and finally touch down just beyond under a canopy of trees. Then it would face the same problem as a jet, which after landing has to drastically reduce its speed by reversing its engines. In the loon's case, it would have met the water with considerable force, sent a shower of water in all directions, then plowed a long furrow through the water before finally coming to rest. Instead of reversing its engines, maybe it used its feet as brakes.
To my mind, a takeoff would be even more difficult. For one thing, it would have to retrace it landing path because there was no way it could go down the sandbar-choked creek in the opposite direction. From the bend in the creek, the wayward loon would have to head straight for the bridge. His takeoff run would start with feet kicking hard against the water- beating a tattoo against it - as its wings thrust and stroked the air, all of this to propel the heavy body forward, to gain sufficient momentum to become airborne before reaching the concrete bridge.
He would have to clear the bridge because the little concrete span literally hugs the water, not providing enough space under it for a flying swallow, let alone the juggernauting body of a loon. So this would not be just a measure of flying skill, it would be a life and death test of nerve.
The loon would have to continue increasing its speed as it neared the bridge and, then with a final surge of power, turn on his after-burners and take to the air. That would be only the first nerve-wracking problem to solve.
The little bridge is actually lower than the surrounding banks of the stream which are densely lined with a variety of plants ranging from tangles of blackberry to scouring rushes. Then there are the trees with just a few narrow corridors of flying space between their spreading branches.
I have already mentioned that the loon would have to retrace its path. That's because on the other side of the creek- to the north- there is Written Rock itself, which is the bottommost part of a steep wooded hill, A short distance beyond the bridge the creek bends in a curve around the base of yet another steep wooded hill and the trees along the creek become even bigger, closer together, towering over the creek, forming a narrow concourse not given to avian jetliners.
Once over the bridge, the loon would have to maintain the surge of extra power, increase it to the maximum, rise above the surrounding banks and seek a flyway between the trees. That done, the rest would be like shooting fish in a barrel, Through such a space, with blue sky luring him on, he would bank sharply, continue climbing, emerge out of and over the receding valley.
I had another thought. If the loon delayed his attempted departure until there was a headwind, his chances of a successful takeoff would be increased many times. As with any aircraft, an opposing breeze of any kind would add immeasurably to the lifting ability of his wings. The problem was the wind would have to be from the east and that is not the prevailing direction from which Ohio winds blow.
Later, I had no doubt that the loon made good his escape and that he navigated his way out of its predicament in somewhat the way I have explained. The next day I visited the bridge several times and he was gone. I only wished that I could have been there to have cheered him on.
About a year after I wrote this account, I learned that several of the fellows who had been with me returned to the spot later that first day. From the bridge they waded up the creek, caught the loon, stuffed it in a burlap bag and took it to Lake Logan about ten miles away where they released it.
This just goes to prove the truth of something Thoreau wrote all those many years ago: "My facts shall be falsehoods to the common sense. I would so state facts that they shall be significant, shall be myths or mythologic. Facts which the mind perceived, thoughts which the body thought-with these I deal."
Need I say more?
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