On the Lake Norman loon lookout
by Diana Gleasner
My first loon sighting was in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada.
I’d been listening for the loon’s haunting call. You don’t hear that wail on a dark night without shivers prickling up and down your spine. Some say it sounds like the high-pitched hysterical yodeling-laugh of an insane woman in big trouble.
Of course, later I learned that only the males get to do the yodeling. It’s that distinctive cry that has wheedled its way into the language. It’s no wonder they say someone is “crazy as a loon” or just plain “loony.”
I didn’t expect to see the real thing – feathers and all. We were canoeing through the wilds of Canada, soaking up sunshine and tranquility during our honeymoon. We had a small campfire going, and I was trying to decide what I could concoct from our odd assortment of dehydrated dinners.
The image of that stately bird gliding by our campsite is permanently etched in my memory. It was paddling through a narrow inlet, carrying a small ball of fuzz on its back – a baby chick. The adult loon’s regal black head, black and white plumage and red eyes were clearly visible.
Loons are impressive, three feet long and up to 12 pounds, and according to my bird book, quite talented. These aquatic birds don’t just walk (awkwardly) and fly, but they are also skilled swimmers and deep divers, diving down to 100 feet.
I was happy to learn on our honeymoon trip that most loons mate for life. The loon and I had something in common.
The next time I saw a loon was years later on Lake Norman.
Loon watchers need good eyes and plenty of patience, since even dedicated loon watchers find this bird difficult to keep track of. They see a loon dive, and while they are staring at that spot, the loon pops up a good distance away. It can remain underwater for several minutes at a time.
The threatened species is worth watching. Fossils tell us loons are among the most ancient of birds, but, like so much of our wildlife, they are endangered due to loss of habitat.
Now we have our own loon. Well, not exactly ours, but a regular visitor to our cove – due west of Marker 6 on the Main Channel – where their presence would indicate good fishing. And to close the deal, we’ve named her. We call her Clair.
My husband Bill remembers his mother playing Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” on the piano. So when we saw our first Lake Norman loon, we christened it Clair.
Loons have only come to Lake Norman in recent years. Some head south in the fall before the first northern freeze, spend the winter gunkholing Lake Norman and return to the northern lakes in the spring.
The word about Lake Norman is out among the loon population. Local fishing guide Gus Gustafson reports seeing 20 to 30 loons congregating near The Peninsula in Cornelius.
After telling our houseguests how shy these birds are, we met one social butterfly with an affinity for outdoor concerts. She was maneuvering between the boats rafted together to enjoy the Charlotte Symphony Concert at Lake Norman’s EnergyExplorium.
“Hey,” my husband called out to the dancing loon. “Aren’t you supposed to be heading north?”
Reluctantly the loon paddled off.
Our fascination with the loon will be with us always. Returning from my morning walk, I found my husband on the back deck, binoculars scanning the cove. His voice was tinged with awe.
He had seen Clair.
“She dove over there,” – he pointed “and came up way over there.”
I wonder where she’s been, and if there’s any chance Clair is a boy bird. It doesn’t really matter.
She’ll always be Clair to us. Clair the Loon.