The Subtle Wonders of the World: A Nature Essay
The feeling of being watched was surreal. I turned one way and saw nothing. When I turned the other way, I was not surprised to see, just a few feet away, the jet black face and red eyes. A black and white checkered necklace interrupted the ebony that colored the long slender neck. I held its gaze then turned back to the task at hand, which happened to be catching fish from my kayak.
The loon and its mate had a nest at the northwestern part of the lake. I enjoy fishing after dark, and one night, around midnight, the silence was shattered by a song of the parents-to-be. I have heard many loon songs on many lakes across the country, but I have never heard such singing as I did that night. A couple of days later, I saw the baby for the first time. I wonder if the song was the parents' celebration of the first egg hatching. The second one came along a few days later.
Loon in Northern Michigan
This small northern Michigan lake had a positive reputation for excellent fishing. I was devoting my covid time off work to making it earn its accolades. My favorite fish to catch for eating is bluegill, also called brim or bream. I know. No serious fisherman should admit to purposely looking for these small fish. The name, bluegill, is commonly used for several members of the sunfish family, such as red-ear, pumpkinseed, and bluegill.
It's true that many lakes are crowded with various sunfish species. Any fisherman who ventures out specifically for bluegill will catch a plethora of the two to three-inch versions, often to the point of embarrassment. The challenge is to find the eight-inch and above individuals. The biggest bluegill I have ever caught measured twelve and a quarter inches.
The next time I visited the lake, all the loons came out to visit. The two chicks were tucked away on the mother's back. Once they got within ten feet of my kayak, the babies slipped into the water. I proceeded to catch a three-inch bluegill and tossed it over the side. As soon as the little fish hit the water, papa loon disappeared beneath the surface. It came up a few seconds later with my fish in its mouth. Each time I threw a small fish into the water, either the mother or father would retrieve it.
Then I caught a ten-inch bass. I looked at the male loon and chuckled my dare to him. The bass barely hit the water, and the loon was on him. It took some work, but the big bird got it down.
One day, I was fishing without the loons' company, which was fine with me because they tend to scare the fish away in a wide area. My bobber went under, and I responded with a tug. As I reeled the fish in, my excitement rose. This could be the largest freshwater fish I have ever caught. When I pulled it up to the boat, it was a three-inch bluegill with a twelve-pound loon hanging on for the ride.
This lake is home to more than tiny bluegill and loons. Once, an ominous figure rose out of the depths, the water magnifying and distorting the image so that it reminded me of some prehistoric beast. The snapping turtle surfaced and bumped my red and white plastic bobber. I was concerned that it might go for my bait, so I gently reeled in the line. As the hook slipped across the turtle's neck, it snagged. I wasn't pulling hard, so it didn't sink too far into the flesh. The snapper slowly swam toward the boat. It was as though it knew I would remove the offending hook. It came to rest at my immediate right. I reached down and plucked the hook from its massive, wrinkled neck. At the same instant, the turtle's head shot forward, lightning-fast, and snatched the biggest bluegill on my stringer. It tugged until the fish came loose, then swam away with its prize.
This was a big snapper. I estimate it was thirty inches from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail. But that is not how turtles are measured by those who do such things professionally. They measure the carapace, or shell, from front to back. My guess is that this turtle's algae-covered shell was fifteen inches long. Based on that length, it probably weighed forty pounds and could have been anywhere from fifty to one-hundred seventy years old. It's that kind of experience that has me doing all the hard work and the turtle swimming off with my fish.
Here is one final update on the loon fam. The last two times I've been to the lake, only the adult male has visited. Each time, I caught one fish and threw it back. The loon retrieved it like usual, but then began a series of dipping the fish and lifting it into the air as it swam across the lake. Either papa loon was on a diet, or the chicks were hungry and wanted fish tacos for dinner.
I wish I had better photos of the loons to share with you. I don't have any of the turtle. I found that the loons were rather shy. I tried to reorient my kayak and point my phone to capture a photo, but they moved directly behind me. I'll add more photos to this article if I can get them.
The world is full of natural wonders for us to observe if we will do two things. First, we have to get out into nature, or we will never discover anything for ourselves. Second, We might need to change our definition of natural wonders. They aren't always the big, flashy things like the Grand Canyon or giant dinosaur fossils. The most amazing experiences can be as simple as the cry of a loon at night.