Ancient loons haunt the lake
Word comes to us in early June from family members visiting our extended-family cabin. A loon is nesting at Hammock Point!
At our three-acre island, we often listen to the loons calling their hysterical laughing call or the haunting wail that sends shivers down your spine. The sleek black bird sparkled with white spots on its back swims and dives all day long.
Some Fillmore County readers, living as we do in the only county in Minnesota without a natural lake, may have never encountered a loon. Its call is heard only on lottery ads. Yet it is the state bird, treasured by many.
Loons are only seen on lakes. They spend their whole lives either swimming or flying, never stopping on land. There are two reasons they must only land on larger water bodies. First, they cannot walk, because their strong swimming legs are attached improbably far back on their bodies. Second, to take flight they need enough water to flap frantically along the surface up to 300 yards, to get up enough speed to take off. Any touchdown on a smaller pond or ice would be certain death.
After spending the summer on their home lake, loons migrate in autumn to oceans — either the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic shore. Once they hit the ocean, they stay afloat all winter, paddling around and diving deep to catch fish. Then come spring, the urge to migrate back to their home lake arises, and the long flight home begins. Even more astonishing, the young birds stay in those coastal waters for three long years before they suddenly get the urge to return to their home lake.
This miracle of life has well proven its effectiveness, as loons in their current form were thriving 35 million years ago, when dinosaurs walked the earth and mammals were just emerging.
Back at the island, “our” loon lays two large tan eggs in a nest of reeds right on the shore. Only six inches above the water, the nest gives the sitting mama bird an instant escape to the water. The parents built that nest so it is hidden in the vegetation and protected from predators on land by a steep rocky cliff. We have some concern as the parent loons are being hounded by black flies covering their faces, and they seem to seek relief under water, only to be instantly covered the moment they emerge.
A second wave of cabin visitors sadly sends back word that the nest is empty, and we grieve for the loon family.
But as often happens, the loons try again when the flies are gone. We arrive in June to discover that one new egg has been laid! I look up the gestation time and write on the cabin calendar when to expect hatching.
Six weeks later, we return around the expected due date, and are unsure how to interpret the now empty nest. Did the egg get eaten by a predator? Or did the parents take a newly hatched chick to a more hidden location?
A few days later we are overjoyed when our daughter spies a loon with a little fluffy chick on its back. They made it! Every few days we see the parents calmly floating along, with the chick either riding atop a parent’s back or courageously bobbing alongside while being fed tiny minnows. They check on each other with little hoots.
As we near the end of our island vacation, I hear a great ruckus of splashing and loon tremolos. We dash down to the shore, where two loons are moving apart, doing their best to scare something off. Then we see it. A bald eagle dives down, undoubtedly looking for a chick for lunch. Just then, a boat zooms up and the eagle soars away. These folks had observed the eagle harassing the loons before. We all hold our breath, along with the the two parent birds, searching for sight of the chick. One minute, two… then far off the chick bobs up from its dive! The parent loons zoom off to greet it, while we cheer the little family on.
Our National Bird has to eat too, but allegiance this day is to our State Birds, who so persistently use their ancient skills and determination to launch the next generation.
Five Minute Artisan Bread
1 ½ T yeast
1 ½ T kosher salt
6 ½ c flour (unbleached is best, 1 to 2 cups can be whole wheat)
Mix yeast and salt into 3 cups of 100 degree water. Dump in all the flour at once and mix until uniformly moist but do not knead. Dump the wet, loose dough into a five-quart ice cream bucket or similar plastic container. Place cover on top but do not seal. Let rise at room temperature 2-5 hours. Dough can be refrigerated up to 2 weeks, or use immediately. Flavor and texture improve with time.
When ready to bake, sprinkle flour on dough and hands and cut off a grapefruit size piece with a serrated knife. Working for about 30 seconds, turn dough in hands, gently tucking surface under, rotating ball as you go, creating a rounded top and bunched bottom. Place dough on a cornmeal-sprinkled cookie sheet and let rest uncovered for 40 min.
Place broiler pan on bottom rack of oven and baking stone (optional) on middle rack, and preheat to 450 degrees for at least 20 minutes. Dust loaf with flour and slash with a serrated knife. Slide dough onto baking stone. (Or bake on the cookie sheet if you don’t have a stone.) Pour 1 cup hot tap water into broiler pan and quickly close oven door to trap steam. Bake about 30 minutes, until well-browned and firm to touch. Cool completely on wire rack.
This makes 4 round loaves, one at a time, at your convenience. Make round loaves, long loaves, cinnamon rolls, pizza crust, pita bread, or bread sticks.