Lake Henry, New Hampshire
Like everything else at the lake, dawn arrived in its own good time. The flat black of night slowly deepened to a midnight blue that lightened in lazy steps, gradually giving form to the spike of a tree, the eave of a cottage, the tongue of a weathered wood dock -- and that was on a clear day. On this day, fog slowed the process of delineation, reducing the lake to a pool of milky glass and the shoreline to a hazy wash of orange, gold, and green where, normally, vibrant fall colors would be. A glimpse of cranberry or navy marked a lakefront home, but details were lost in the mist. Likewise the separation of reflection and shore. The effect, with the air quiet and still, was that of a protective cocoon.
It was a special moment. The only thing John Kipling would change about it was the cold. He wasn't ready for summer to end, but despite his wishes, the days were noticeably shorter than they had been two months before. The sun set sooner and rose later, and the chill of the night lingered. He felt it. His loons felt it. The foursome he watched, two adults and their young, would remain on the lake for another five weeks, but they were growing restless, looking to the sky lately in ways that had less to do with predators than with thoughts of migration.
As he watched now, they floated in the fog not twenty feet from his canoe, not ten feet again from the tiny fir covered island in whose sheltered cove they had summered. The island was one of many that dotted Lake Henry. Between the clarity of the water, the quiet of the lake, and the abundance of small fish, those islands lured the loons back year after year -- because they didn't do well on land. Their feet were set too far back under large, cumbersome bodies. So they built nests on the very edge of these islands, where they could more easily enter and leave the water. John found it painful watching them lurch even those precious few inches from water to nest.
In all other respects, though, the loons were a sight to behold. Since the chicks' birth, in July, he had watched their plumage go from baby black to toddler brown to a rather drab juvenile gray, but they had their parents' tapered beaks and sleek necks, and a promise of future brilliance -- and those parents, ahhhh, those parents were brilliant indeed, even in fall, with their plumage starting to dull, even this morning, through the veil of an ashy mist. They were beauties, with crisp checkerboards of white-on-black backs, white-stripe necklaces around black necks, solid black heads, distinctive pointed beaks. As if that weren't impressive enough, they had riveting round red eyes. John had heard that the red enhanced underwater vision, and he could believe it. Those eyes didn't miss much.
The birds lay low in the water now, swimming gently around the cove, alternately rolling and contorting to groom themselves and submerging their heads to troll for fish. When one of the adults compressed its body and dove, a webbed power propelled it deep. John knew it might fill its belly with up to fifteen minnows before resurfacing a distance away.
He searched the fog until he spotted it again. Its mate continued to float near the island, but both adults were alert, those pointed bills tipped just a little higher as they scoured the fog for news. Later that morning they would leave their young, run laboriously across the surface of the lake, and lumber up into the air. After circling a time or two until they gained altitude enough to clear the trees, they would fly to a neighboring lake to visit other loons. Breeding was a solitary time, and with two fledglings to show for months of vigilance and work, this pair had done well. Now they had to refresh their social skills in preparation for wintering in larger groups on the warmer Atlantic coast.
For an eon, loons had repeated this ritual. The same intelligence that had assured their survival for so long told the current crop of birds that September was halfway done, October would bring colder days and evening frost, and November would bring ice. Since they needed an expanse of clear water for takeoff, they had to leave the lake before it froze.
Copyright © 1999 by Barbara Delinsky
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